Early Animation and Vaudeville: Imitation is the Most Sincere Form of Flattery

[The following article was was co-written with Nick Thacker, a fellow BYU student and film major.]

Before the technology for moving pictures on film was invented, audiences were fascinated by the illusion of life created by devices like the Zoetrope and the Praxinoscope which displayed sequences of drawings in rapid succession to make it look like they are moving. Although such animations rarely told any kind of story, it was a glimpse at what would soon be a new means of entertainment. (Myrent 193)

Examples of a Zoetrope and a Praxinoscope

As early film developed, it’s no surprise that innovative artists saw the extended running time that film provided as a perfect opportunity to develop animation further. In addition, as film rapidly overtook the stage, it makes sense that already-established performances were translated into cinema. The easiest transition was the stage comedy styles of vaudeville. Virtually silent by nature, vaudeville’s broad humor played perfectly in early cinema. We will discuss how the fledgling animation that developed alongside early, silent comedy also used and incorporated various aspects of vaudeville, namely similar tricks and humor, social stereotypes, and by including caricatures and homages to the vaudeville greats of the time.

Vaudeville Tricks and Humor

An early vaudeville performer who made use of animation was James Stuart Blackton, who, with Thomas Edison in 1900, produced a film where he drew a man’s face, a wine bottle, and a goblet. Then, through the camera tricks, would take the wine out of the picture, take a drink, and then interact with the drawing of the man’s face. The man’s face, still a drawing,would react to Blackton. Although not direct animation, it shows the genesis of what is possible with making slight changes to drawings between film exposures. Blackton would later incorporate more direct animation in 1906 when he created a film titled, “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.” In the film, he created the illusion of movement through drawing and erasing images on a chalkboard in combination with paper cutouts. In between film exposures, he would rearrange these various elements. (Bailey 32)

Scene from "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces"

Shortly after Blackton’s experiments with animation, cartoonist Windsor McCay created perhaps the first frame by frame animated cartoon called “Little Nemo.” Like Blackton, McCay would travel the vaudeville circuit and appear on stage and interact with his film. He can also be credited with producing the first color animated cartoon because he hand tinted each frame of at least one of his “Little Nemo” cartoons for these exhibitions. (Smith 24)

Scene from "Little Nemo"

Later McCay incorporated elaborate animation into a vaudeville performance called, “Gertie the Dinosaur.” In this act, he would stand next to a screen upon which would be projected an animation of Gertie the Dinosaur. His act would timed perfectly to create the illusion that he was actually interacting with a living and breathing creature. For example, at one point he pretends to throw a pumpkin at the dinosaur. The pumpkin “magically” leaves McCay’s hand, travels into the projected image via a timed drawing, and Gertie catches it. Audiences were amazed at what they saw on the screen. At the time, animation was so new that audiences suspected wires or other methods to be employed, not just simple drawings. A unique spectacle, McCay’s act became an instant hit. (Bailey 33)

Scene from "Gertie the Dinosaur"

By 1913, many cartoonists, including John Bray and Sidney Smith, began releasing animated shorts intended for wide distribution and exhibition in theatrical venues. These were some of the first examples of animated films becoming the attraction themselves without relying on the presence of a human in the context of a vaudeville performance to give them credibility. (Smith 25)

Social Stereotypes

By the 1920s and 30s, live vaudeville had almost wholly been replaced by animated counterparts. Once animated films began to stand on their own, vaudevillian sensibilities were readily incorporated onto the screen. One aspect that had been important to vaudeville entertainment was the presence of black minstrelsy, a long-standing traditional show where white entertainers wore black-face and imitated American blacks. While live-action films still continued black-face traditions, Animation was seemingly built on them to start.

Famous characters of early animation, Ko-Ko, Felix the Cat, and even Mickey Mouse all resembled black minstrel entertainers in attitude and performance. Mickey Mouse “is a wily trickster with the white gloves and extremely large mouth and eyes of a black-face minstrel” (Sammond, 269). While Disney and other companies have obviously strayed from that formula since then, it’s hard to argue the presence of the black trickster in early animation.

Sound later brought the ability to infuse an animation with music and voices. This further developed black minstrelsy’s (among other racial stereotypes) presence in animation. Jazz music and singing became commonplace in these types of animated films just as they were in vaudeville stage performances. Examples range from the crows in Walt Disney’s Dumbo to Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid—where Bosko not only talks in the dialect of black minstrelsy but tap dances as well.

Scene from "Bosko the Talk-ink Kid"

Mickey Mouse himself even encounters exaggerated, racially-stereotypical natives in the short, Trader Mickey, in 1932. While Mickey wears white gloves, shoes, and shorts, the natives wear grass skirts, chains on their legs, and fat lips. In fact, as Sammond writes:

Evoking the plantation, the jungle, and the ghetto, cartoon shorts such as Swing You Sinners (Fleischer, 1930), Snow White (1933), Little Black Sambo (Ub Iwerks/ Comicolor, 1935), or Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (Merrie Melodies, 1936) employed stereotypical blackness to depict the threat of primitive savagery, the innocence of the barely civilized, the allure and danger of the jazz underworld, black cupidity, and the irresistible effects of rhythm on the black body. True to the culture of the time, animation continued to elongate stereotypes, especially of blacks, of which, these are just a few examples (Sammond, 280).

Scene from "Trader Mickey"

Homage and Caricature

Animation, however, never thought to promote itself as wholly and uniquely its own. It recognized that it was a child of the times, continually referencing and blatantly including elements of contemporary film. So, as one scours the shorts created in the early 1900s, it isn’t surprising to see homages, similarities, and even outright caricatures of famous comedians, actors, or films.

Other studios may spring to mind faster than Disney when thinking about caricatures, but Walt Disney, while hailed as a creative genius in his own right, drew largely upon Charlie Chaplin in his development of Mickey Mouse. For instance, the short Mickey Plays Papa depicts Mickey finding a baby and attempting to care for it, the plot of Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, produced a decade earlier. In the short, Mickey even attempts to console the infant by doing a Chaplin impersonation. Another Disney short, Alice’s Orphan follows the same plot, with distinct and likely purposeful moments identical to Chaplin’s film (Kaufman).

In an essay on Disney, J.B. Kaufman said, “Disney kept an alert eye on what was afoot in vaudeville, daily comic strips, circus, live theater, and live action films: documentaries, newsreels, Laurel and Hardy, the Our Gang comedies and—even more than Chaplin— Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd (Kaufman, 71).” Disney obviously had a wealth of his contemporary pop culture to influence his own films. Not only entertainers, but cultural icons were depicted as seen in Plane Crazy, where Mickey idolizes Charles Lindbergh and messes up his hair in order to resemble the famous pilot.

Scenes from "Plane Crazy"

Another example full of Disney’s caricatures and depictions of Hollywood stars at the time, was Mickey’s Polo Team. Produced in 1936, the short showed Mickey’s polo team facing against a team of celebrities such as Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Harpo Marx. Other celebrities make appearances as well. Shirley Temple cheers from the stands with the three little pigs. W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, Greta Garbo, and Clark Gable (among others) make appearances amongst a spectatorship of Disney cartoon characters. Almost all these celebrities, upon their appearance, are caricatured, over-the-top versions of themselves. Today this might seem out of character for Disney when compared to contemporary examples of Shrek or similar films, but Walt Disney certainly knew how to pay homage to the greats of his time (Hand).

Scene from "Mickey's Polo Team"

To provide another example of the time, the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies short, A Tale of Two Kitties, serves as the debut of two cats: Babbit and Catstello. These two cats are obvious references and caricatures of the comedy duo, Abbot and Costello, and would appear in many Merrie Melodies cartoons after this one. One noticeable joke in their cartoons was Catstello’s iterations of Costello’s, “I’m a bad boy” (Clampett).

Scene from "A Tale of Two Kitties"

So, these examples, again, provide just a quick glance at the plethora of caricatures and homages present in animation to its twin sister, film. Animation knowingly and unashamedly admitted it was a product of the popular culture of vaudeville and cinema of the time.

War Changes Everything

Previous to the United States’ officially declaring entry into the war, Walt Disney was enlisted for a goodwill tour of South America in the summer of 1941 to assist in discouraging the pro-Nazi sentiments some Latin American countries were expressing. For the Disney studio, the tour resulted in two feature films: Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros (Williams 144-5).

Scene from "The Three Caballeros"

Before World War II, the standard formula for producing animated films included, “Select any two animals, grind together, and stir in a plot. Add prat falls, head and body blows, and slide whistle effects to taste. Garnish with Brooklyn accents. Slice into 600-foot lengths and release.” With a world-wide conflict raging, the government sought new ways of not only garnering support for being in the war, but also in developing training materials that would bring everyday people up to speed rapidly. This brought about the need to utilize many animation studios to improve the so-called “nuts and bolts” educational films that had previously been utilized for educational purposes. “Because of war-time necessity, pigs and bunnies have collided with nuts and bolts.” (Hubley and Schwartz 360)

Similar to motion picture studios, animation houses were also impacted heavily by the war. Once the U.S.A. officially entered the World War II, Walt Disney enthusiastically offered the services of his studio to help in the war effort (Thomas 95). His desire to help was so strong that he wouldn’t charge a profit for the productions he produced (Williams 151). Animated cartoons were no longer solely for vaudevillian gags and caricatures, but used their established characters to spread propaganda and graphic techniques to improve training.

Scene from war time, Disney produced propaganda film "Der Fuehrer's Face"

Once the fighting was over, the animation industry had evolved and gained new sensibilities and storytelling abilities. It had essentially developed a new language that no longer relied on its vaudeville roots (Hubley and Schwartz 363). Animation began to encompass every aspect of visual imagery that could be used to communicate and tell just about any story that needed to be told.

Works Cited

  • Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy. New Jersey: Chartwell Books Inc., 1984.
  • Clampett, Bob. A Tale of Two Kitties. Warner Bros Pictures, 1942. Film.
  • Hand, David, dir. Mickey’s Polo Team. Walt Disney Pictures, 1936. Film.
  • Hubley, John and Schwartz, Zachary. “Animation Learns a New Language.” Hollywood Quarterly, Vol 1, No. 4 (Jul., 1946). pp 360-363.
  • Kaufman, J.B. “The Shadow of the Mouse.” Film Comment, Vol. 28, No. 5 (1992). pp 68- 71.
  • Myrent, Glenn. “Emile Reynaud: First Motion Picture Cartoonist.” Film History, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1989). pp 191-202.
  • Sammond, Nicholas. “A Space Apart: Animation and the Spatial Politics of Conversion.” Film History, Vol. 23. (2011). pp 268-84.
  • Smith, Conrad. “The Early History of Animation; Saturday Morning TV Discovers 1915.” Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 1977). pp 23-30
  • Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation: from Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast. New York: Hyperion, 1991.
  • Williams, Pat. How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2004.
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