Bewildering Stories Discusses
Film Cartoon Culture
in the Pre- and Postwar Eras
with Sherman Smith
The discussion “Cultural and Historical Realism” continues with an examination of the role of a popular culture genre in reality and fiction.
[Excerpt from the previous discussion] Woody Woodpecker is problematic in another way. Many readers will recall the character’s raucous voice in film cartoons; many others won’t. In either case, all readers will wonder why such a sinister character as Elroy Hawks would be compared, at times, to a comic figure in cinema for children. Readers may suspect that you are thinking of the sound alone while they are thinking of the character itself.
[Sherman S.] Thanks, and well done. I’d like to add background information on the use of cartoons prior to the television era in particular the pre-War and post-War years for the characters in Two Blind Men and a Fool.
Most people are aware that cartoons in the 1930s, 40s, and even 50s were more adult in nature than they are today. Characters drank, smoked, and worried about taxes. For example, I remember a Woody Woodpecker cartoon in which Buzz Buzzard was determined to sign Woody up for a life insurance policy. But Buzz was going to make himself the beneficiary, knock Woody off, and keep the insurance money. Pretty heavy stuff.
Cartoons were more adult back in the golden age of animation because cartoons used to be shown before the main feature. For example, Tom and Jerry cartoons were shown before MGM movies. Woody Woodpecker and friends were shown before Universal movies. Of course, Loony Tunes cartoons preceded Warner Brothers movies.
Now, why did the pre-World War II characters like Woody Woodpecker act in insane ways? The animators and creators were young men feeling their oats. It makes perfect sense that early Woody Woodpecker, for example, would be wild and crazy.
Later on, as the creators began settling down and raising families, characters like Woody became more domesticated. Woody started caring for his nephew and niece, Knothead and Splinter. Meanwhile, over at Looney Tunes, Sylvester the Cat began raising his son. Even Foghorn Leghorn became a father figure to Miss Prissy’s son, Egghead, Jr.
Yes, the post-World War II cartoon characters were different from the way they were before the War. Cartoons began to be shown on television to children as well as to adult audiences in cinemas. Animators’ real-life personalities seeped into the characters, and the characters changed as the creators’ lives changed. And, of course, when cartoons began being shown on television, characters needed to be tamed down a little.
[Don W.] Thank you for the historical review, Sherman! It’s quite informative. I cheerfully grant that literature has a large grey area where it appeals to all ages.
Classical fables come to mind, especially those of Jean de La Fontaine. Likewise, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer appeal to adults as well as to children of the same age as the main characters. But one can’t quite say the same for Huckleberry Finn, which has more of an adult audience.
I remember seeing a film cartoon at about age 6, one that I remember to this day, because it depicted a surrealistic dream sequence. Of course I was too young to know who produced it, but even at that age I realized — though only as a child could — that it was quite unusual. An adult of the time would surely have appreciated it more than I could have.
How does Woody Woodpecker function as a kind of image of Elroy Hawks’ personality in Two Blind Men and a Fool? We have to remember that you have two audiences for the cartoon character:
A fictional audience, namely the characters in the novel. They’re adults living in San Francisco in the years 1946-47.
A real audience: adult readers living practically anywhere in the world almost 70 years later.
As you say, those two audiences — the fictional and the real — will perceive Woody Woodpecker in rather different ways.
Perhaps the lesson for writers of historical fiction is that culture changes. The characters’ cultural expectations will often differ markedly from the readers’. And the characters must act according to the culture of their time; otherwise they’ll be inauthentic. That’s why historical novels can be interesting.
What’s the solution? It can be found in “Who’s Your Audience?” Who are you writing for? To it we have to add one of our unofficial mottoes: “Everything we perceive comes to us from the past; everything we do goes into the future.” And that implies some time constraints in terms of audience.
Writing for an audience in the past is not entirely pointless, as long as it consists of one or more persons who, today, are as you know them or might be as you have known them.
A future audience is somewhat more problematic: it might be a child who, some years hence, might be able to understand your story better than that child can now. Otherwise, who knows what a future audience will think or understand?
The easiest solution is to write for an audience of one or more people in the present and show that audience why the characters of a different time think and act as they do.
By and large, the characters in Two Blind Men and a Fool are quite understandable today, and the readers are faced with very little culture shock. The one that is the most culture-bound and, therefore, the most problematic is Woody Woodpecker.
Copyright © 2014 by Sherman Smith
and Bewildering Stories