Monday, February 25, 2019

Q&A with Professor of Animation History David McGowan

Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, and other beloved cartoon characters have entertained media audiences for almost a century, outliving the human stars who were once their contemporaries in studio-era Hollywood. In his book,
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Animated Personalities: Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts, David McGowan asserts that iconic American theatrical short cartoon characters should be legitimately regarded as stars, equal to their live-action counterparts, not only because they have enjoyed long careers, but also because their star personas have been created and marketed in ways also used for cinematic celebrities.

To celebrate the release of 
Animated Personalities, we asked David McGowan, professor in animation history at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), a few questions about his research.

Could you give us the elevator pitch for your book?

Animated Personalities argues that cartoon characters should be considered legitimate stars, just like human performers. The book covers studio-era protagonists such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse and demonstrates how their star personas were regularly created and marketed, just as those for their live-action counterparts were. These characters were regularly shown granting “interviews” in fan magazines or endorsing products in advertisements, extending their “private” existence beyond the cartoons in which they appeared.

While I focus on articulating these personalities during the so-called “golden age” of 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, I also follow them into their later, post-theatrical years. Like many of the human stars of the screen, characters such as Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker transferred to television as studio production began to decline, and their personas had to be adapted to fit this new medium. I also consider the prolonged existence of many of these figuresat the time of writing, Mickey Mouse has recently turned ninety years of age!and how they may continue to function as stars even as they reach the upper limits of human life expectancy.

How do you define “cinematic stardom”?

While a term such as “film star” can be used as a casual descriptor for any famous screen personality, academic concepts of cinematic stardom are well established. The work of Richard Dyer remains central to our understanding of star theory, with his first major publication on the subjectStars (1979)celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.

Dyer’s work is extremely valuable in highlighting that the cinematic system operates on a rhetoric of authenticity, aiming to present many of the artificial elements that compose the star’s image as the absolute truth. Authors such as Dyer and Richard deCordova have emphasized the importance of uncovering aspects of the performer’s private life as part of this process. The movies spark our interest in the actor, but we may have to look beyond the screen in order to get the full picture.

Early televisual stardom, by contrast, has often been characterized in terms of immediacy and direct address. The performer’s apparent spontaneity and acknowledgment of the viewer, when compared to the distant, self-enclosed worlds of cinema, seemingly made him or her more accessible to the home audience. This was often a rhetoric of authenticity itselfultimately as artificial and carefully constructed as the big screen equivalentbut we can certainly see that approaches to stardom have changed to suit different mediums, different eras, and different audience tastes.

How does your research push the boundaries of “star theory”?

In its assumption of a live-action subject, star theory has tended to take certain attributes for granted. Dyer’s work, for instance, stresses the indexicality of the star, noting that photographs provide evidence that the actor physically exists (or once existed) on a basic level. The acknowledgment that the star has a separate private life is seen as a further marker of authenticity, bound up with the realization that the performer’s off-screen conduct has the potential to reveal aspects of his or her personality that would not be visible in the films themselves. While I admit that cel-animated cartoon stars do not have actual private lives or physical existence, I argue that a textual simulacrum of these traitsif evoked appropriatelyhas generally proven an acceptable substitute. Many apparent revelations about the private lives of human stars are still subject to manipulation and

fabrication. Indeed, part of the joy of engaging with stardom as a fan is navigating between the boundaries of the real and the artificial. My research indicates many instances in which trade journals, fan magazines, and sometimes even serious newspapers and government officials were happy to play along with the notion that characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny could be treated as stars.

Previous work in academic film studies has tended to overemphasize a separation between live-action media and the cartoon. This is a dangerous approach, I think, and one that has allowed star theory to adopt certain truisms that overlook the importance of animation within the studio system of that time. As I note in the book’s introduction, the cartoon characters I discuss possess a unique proximity to the live-action Hollywood studio stars privileged by authors such as Dyer: not only do they begin to appear on-screen at roughly the same time, but their work is also produced and released by the very same studios, viewed by the same audiences, and written about by the same publications.

Live-action star theory has also tended to focus on features rather than shorts, even though the short-film market of the studio era included a viable star system that is worthy of further exploration. Beyond that, certain human stars fit the current theoretical models better than others do. In some ways, Charlie Chaplin may have more in common with Felix the Cat than with, say, Humphrey Bogart, yet the live-action focus of existing theory tends to automatically accept Chaplin as a star while discounting (or simply ignoring) Felix. I hope, then, that there is an opportunity to broaden our understanding of both live-action and animated stardom by adding cartoon characters into the equation.

You draw a connection to the embodied representation of literary characters like Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or James Bond from Ian Fleming’s series of novels. Unpack that a little more for us.

Literary characters such as Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, or Fleming’s James Bond, began in printed text and have been realized on-screen in live-action cinema by different actors in different eras. Each new performer arguably brings part of his or her own star image to the character: beyond the inevitable physical differences between Sean Connery and Roger Moore’s incarnations of Bond, there are often performance and personality differences as well. These characters have a shaky existence, subjected to multiple remakes and reboots, as new human casts are brought in to embody them.

By contrast, there has been a tendency to imply that studio-era animated stars have an unbroken existence from their first screen appearances to the present day. The suggestion is that these are cartoon “actors” rather than characters tied to a specific continuity. This understanding is thought to make it easier for us to accept a figure such as Mickey Mouse having a completely different living situation or a brand new job in each subsequent cartoon.

While modern studios have shown a greater tendency to hire celebrity actors to perform as animated protagonistsTom Hanks as Woody from Toy Story, Mike Myers as Shrek, and so onthe earlier generation of cartoon production placed much less emphasis on the voice artists who helped to bring the characters to life. It is extremely important that we now recognize the talents of performers such as Mel Blanc and June Foray, but these duties were often carried out in the service of the animated star first and foremost. The casting of a new voice artist for, say, Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse has tended to be much less disruptive to the character’s ongoing existence than the choice of the latest actor to play Batman or Sherlock Holmes.

The book goes through the studio system up to contemporary representations termed “synthespian” performances, referring to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and other productions. What is the through line for these more modern representations of embodiment using technologies such as CG?

While it was previously easierif not necessarily accurateto make an absolute distinction between the properties of live-action cinema and those of animation, new technologies are increasingly blurring the boundaries between the two. It is now possible for stars to deliver computer-assisted “synthespian” performances in which the character’s (often photorealistic) body image appears significantly different from that of the actor’s real physical appearance. We are also seeing a rise in “posthumous performances,” using CGI to create a new screen appearance from a subject who is no longer aliveeven, in some cases, featuring in roles that were never discussed during his or her lifetime. Such developments complicate the assumptions surrounding photographic indexicality and the role of the private life of the star, which were central in previous generations of star theory.
It is possible that cinematic tastes may swing back toward the physical; the fan debates about the inclusion of the late Carrie Fisher in the upcoming Star WarsEpisode IX, for instance, indicate anxieties about using CGI to evoke dead performers in newly produced works. Nonetheless, we are undoubtedly seeing more examples of performances that place less emphasis on direct embodiment by a star. I conclude the book by suggesting that looking back to the past, and to the approaches used for studio-era animated stars, may help us make sense of a cinematic future in which live-action footage and computer-generated images become ever more closely intertwined.

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