This semester, I have the rare opportunity to TA a class on something I actually study. For the most part, graduate TA work tends, at my school, to be limited to general, broad survey courses– Western Civ, or American History. I’ve TA’d both and enjoyed both, but this semester has me far more giddy– I’m TAing HIST 389: History of Animation.
Last week, I had the opportunity to give the introductory talk of the class on the first day. After trying to go through the syllabus, cover the basic questions, etc., I got to show a cartoon and discuss it. I chose 1951’s Gerald McBoing-Boing.
I’ve loved this cartoon for years, and when I saw it wasn’t on the syllabus, I knew I wanted to include it as the subject of my introductory talk. I think it worked pretty well…
I used “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to discuss two approaches that students might want to use to avoid “animation appreciation” style blog posts. You may have loved Snow White as a kid, and that’s great, but it’s of limited scholarly value to say that. So I tried to talk about how we can use “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to look at American history through animation, as well as to look at its place within the history of animation.
As a historical artifact, “Gerald” is a fascinating piece. Created right as the heat was turning up on the 20th century America’s second great Red Scare, this is a parable about conformity and the price paid by those who cannot fit in. While the company that produced it, UPA, was created after the Disney animators’ strike, and while the cartoon rejects the forced conformity that immigrants, gays, leftists, and others felt so strongly during the years of HUAC and McCarthy, it’s simultaneously distinctly not a socialist/communist picture. Gerald’s escape from the persecution of conformist America wasn’t a rejection of capitalism, but actually finding a place within capitalism. Once Gerald’s difference can be commodified, it is respected rather than rejected.
At the same time, it’s a great cartoon to use to discuss the history of animation itself. It’s a great early exemplar (and trend setter) of what some have described as the cartoon modern style of heavily design-oriented 50’s animation. Moreover, it was one of the first cartoons to gain attention for its use of limited animation. UPA cartoonists started using limited animation techniques in reaction to the regime of naturalism over at the House of Mouse, as an artistic decision. However, when the technique became more and more popular, it quickly became obvious that it was a faster, cheaper way to do animation. In this way, the look of the Hannah Barbara cartoons I grew up loving was very deeply influenced by this cartoon.
I picked “Gerald McBoing-Boing” for exactly the same “animation appreciation” reasons that I urged the students to avoid, and I copped to that: I mostly wanted to show this cartoon because it’s cute and it’s visually striking, and it has funny sound effects.
But once selected by those criteria, it’s necessary– and even rewarding– to slip on the “critical historical analysis” colored glasses, and see if they deepen the reading. In this case, it certainly did. Looking for an excuse to show this cartoon made me realize what a fascinating cartoon it really is.