Monday, March 4, 2019

David McGowan's "Animated Personalities"

David McGowan is a professor of animation history at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, GA.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Animated Personalities: Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts, and reported the following:
My manuscript argues that animated characters of the studio era should be viewed as legitimate stars – not just because they were given lead roles in Hollywood films, but because they were also regularly evoked in surrounding media texts as individuals with an apparent private existence. Page 99 of the book is part of a chapter on the Second World War. This particular page covers The New Spirit (1942), a Donald Duck cartoon made by Disney for the United States Treasury, in which the Duck learns the value of paying his taxes promptly and accurately to support the war effort. The film makes some surprising revelations about Donald’s life as an actor, including his $2501 annual salary from the Disney Studio. Such a figure was significantly lower than most human stars of the period and – although this was clearly just a fictional construct – it generated some positive responses in a number of contemporary publications. Time magazine, for instance, noted that the Duck’s modest salary – which also had to cover the childcare costs of his adopted nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie – reflected “pure patriotism” on the part of Disney’s protagonist.

The New Spirit did, however, manage to generate some controversy. While a human actor could theoretically step in front of the camera and donate his or her services for free, animation was somewhat pricier. The budget of The New Spirit allegedly exceeded $40,000 and – while the film was broadly viewed as a success in its propaganda efforts – the production cost became the subject of debate in several quarters. Although the actual controversy surrounded the Disney Studio and the US Treasury, it is notable how often Donald Duck was personally brought into this discussion. Senator Sheridan Downey even spoke up for Donald in Congress, meaning that the official Congressional Record has an entry for “Duck, Donald” – as well as “Disney, Walt” – in its index.

The discussion surrounding The New Spirit reiterates my wider argument in the book that the animated status of cartoon stars was rarely a barrier to them being treated as distinct personalities in their own right – even, as page 99 indicates, by elected government officials! Cartoon characters proved their ability to create enough of a tangible impression on the screen to inspire a nation, and even generate some controversy in the process.
Learn more about Animated Personalities at the University of Texas Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue