The Silent Age of Animation was a period of animation that lasted from the 1900s through the 1920s. These productions were generally very low cost, and were viewed as a novelty. Animation in the United States would not achieve true mainstream status until the late 1920s with the advent of sound in animation, as well as the introduction of many recognizable, mascot characters that the audience could form an attachment to. The first cartoon to ever feature sound, including character dialogue and a musical score, was Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ "Steamboat Willie" in 1928. This propelled Mickey Mouse to popularity. Although Mickey Mouse debuted months prior to "Steamboat Willie" in a test screening of the short "Plane Crazy," this short is generally credited as his debut as it was the first to be widely distributed. Mickey Mouse was created as Disney’s response to the loss of creative control over Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Studios, and he would go on to become one of the most recognizable pop culture icons of all time. The popularity of Mickey Mouse, as well as the success and technical merit of "Steamboat Willie," started what is known as the Golden Age of Animation.
The Golden Age of Animation is well known for introducing many characters whose popularity endures to this day. This includes Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, and many more. Perhaps one of the defining factors of this era is the debut and prevalence of the theatrical animated short. Following a string of roughly a dozen successful Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney created the Silly Symphonies line of shorts. Silly Symphonies was a series of animated shorts produced by the newly formed Walt Disney Productions that ran from 1929 to 1939. In contrast to the Mickey Mouse shorts, which established a continuity and mainstay cast of characters, these shorts generally featured self-contained stories. However, these shorts did introduce Donald Duck, who would go on to join the Mickey Mouse shorts.
The premise of Silly Symphonies was, as the name implies -- imaginative animated shorts accompanied by music. The series is well documented as being used by Disney and his animators as a sort of testing ground for experimental animation processes and techniques -- such as Technicolor multi-plane camera, storytelling, and musical score. Disney has said himself that his work on these shorts was essential for gaining the knowledge to produce, what would be the hallmark of this era, feature-length animated films.
During June of 1934, Walt Disney announced that his first feature-length animated film was in production. The film was based on the classic fairy tale "Snow White" by The Brothers Grimm. In spite of the knowledge Disney and his animators gained from their work on various animated shorts over the years, the team faced many challenges during production. One of these challenges was production cost. Disney estimated the film to cost $250,000, which was many times more than the average cost of one of the Silly Symphonies. The film ended up costing roughly $1.5 million, which Disney had to mortgage his house to help finance.
Another challenge was the lack of faith from the public. During production, the media negatively referred to the film as “Disney’s folly," citing the exorbitant budget, and unlikelihood of an animated feature being commercially successful as reasons to not have faith in the project. Many people close to Disney also attempted to dissuade Disney from the project, including his brother, Roy Disney, and his wife, Lillian Disney.
During the early stages of the production of the script, Disney intended for the film to be mostly comical in nature. The focus of the story was the personalities of the seven dwarfs, and how well they lent themselves to gags and humorous situations. Each dwarf was named after a distinctive characteristic -- such as Happy, Sleepy, and Dopey. At some point during production, Disney decided to change the focus of the film, as he feared a purely comedy film would not be taken seriously. Disney and his team shifted focus towards telling a classically themed fairy tale with elements of humor, and creating a beautifully realized world that was whimsical, colorful, and alive. Just as with the Silly Symphonies, music was an important factor in the film. This is evidenced by one of the most famous scenes from the film which features Snow White singing with various animals.
Walt Disney Production Studios premiered "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" on December 21, 1937. It was later released to the public on February 4, 1938. The film received widespread positive reception, and commercial success. Adjusted for modern inflation, it is the 10th highest grossing film of all time. The success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would set the precedent for Disney to become the top animation studio for the duration of the Golden Age. In addition, this film was the start of Disney producing various feature-length projects based on fairy tales, as well as the start of what would become the Disney Princess media franchise.
While Walt Disney is well established as the dominant animation studio during the Golden Age, they did have competition from various other studios. These included Hanna-Barbera, the creators of "Tom & Jerry," and the "Looney Tunes," who were created primarily by Tex Avery. These franchises were the primary competitors against Disney when it came to animated theatrical shorts, and continued to enjoy great success when Disney shifted focus to features. The Looney Tunes were created in order for Warner Bros. Studios to directly compete with Disney shorts, specifically the Silly Symphonies line. They were originally known as Merrie Melodies, and shared a similar focus of humorous animals and a whimsical score. These shorts lasted for the entirety of the Golden Age, and introduced America to many popular characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Porky Pig.
Animation had a significant impact on the culture of America throughout the Golden Age, especially during wartime America. Because of the success of animated shorts and features during the 1930’s, animation was no longer viewed as something for kids, but something that can be influential to people of all ages. During World War II, the American government sought to use animation to garner support for the war effort. One of the more notable shorts was "Scrap Happy Daffy," which featured Daffy Duck as the guard of an American scrap pile against the invading Nazis. This short was used to encourage people to donate scrap metal, which was used to create tanks, ships, planes and weapons.
Another short was the Walt Disney-produced "The Spirit of ’43." It featured Donald Duck, and was meant to encourage Americans to pay their taxes to support the war effort. The defining feature of these shorts was that they were simultaneously satirical, humorous and informative.
The US Army, in collaboration with animator Chuck Jones, produced a series of instructional shorts featuring a character named Private Snafu. The titular character was an “adorable idiot," not unlike Elmer Fudd, who always found himself in humorous wartime situations against Nazis. These shorts were meant to instruct army members on various military conditions, and to increase troop morale.
It is important to look at the differences among the various shorts that were produced during the Golden Age, as well as the effect they had on American culture. Animation as a form of entertainment was generally viewed as escapism for Americans who wanted to get away from the problems of their realities. Some of these problems included financial stability, and work related stress.
The biggest difference in presentation comes from the comparison of the Disney produced shorts, and the Warner Bros. produced shorts. While the Disney produced shorts were generally, but not always, light-hearted and innocent in nature, the Warner Bros. shorts typically provided a satirical and humorous view on American society, as well as a bigger emphasis on slapstick. A majority of the shorts that enjoyed great success during this era of animation often offered a unique, sometimes mocking, viewpoint on American culture.
As evidenced by the continued success of animation in modern times, the Golden Age of Animation solidified its place in history as culturally relevant to what was happening in America from the late 1920s through the late 1960s. People began to view animation as a mature and respected form of entertainment, as well as something that could be influential and persuasive. The most important thing to come from this era was the feature-length animated film, which established Walt Disney Studios as an animation powerhouse. This is supported by the fact that the company is still the most successful studio to this day, having recently released Frozen, which is the highest grossing animated films of all time. Many of the characters that were introduced during this time are still popular in American culture, having been reinvented countless times to fit the sensibilities of a modern America. Animation is a powerful, important, and wide-reaching form of entertainment that shows no signs of slowing down.