A friend and I were discussing classic cartoon characters, such as Tom and Jerry and Woody Woodpecker, around the water cooler. We discussed why many cartoons from the golden age of animation were more adult than childish. We also discussed why characters like Woody Woodpecker changed from crazy to responsible adult throughout the years. There are many reasons why the pre-World War II characters and cartoons changed over the years.
Most people are aware that cartoons in the 1930s, 40s, and even 50s were more adult in nature. Characters drank, smoked, and worried about taxes. For example, I remember a Woody Woodpecker cartoon in which Buzz Buzzard was determined to sign Woody up for a life insurance policy. But, Buzz was going to make himself the beneficiary, knock Woody off and keep the insurance money. Pretty heavy stuff. Let’s dive into why cartoons were more adult like in this example.
First off, cartoons were more adult back in the golden age of animation because cartoons used to be shown before theatrical movies. Many of us Generation Xers and those who have come after us are used to seeing cartoons on television. (Who doesn’t remember the classic Looney Tunes opening used in the 1980s in which all the famous Looney Tunes characters paraded across the stage?) But, before cartoons were on television, they were in the movie theaters. For example, Tom and Jerry cartoons were shown before MGM movies. Woody Woodpecker and friends were shown before Universal movies. Of course, Looney Tunes cartoons preceded Warner Bros. movies.
Now, as for why the pre-World War II characters like Woody Woodpecker acted in insane ways is because the animators and creators were young men feeling their oats. It makes perfect sense that early Woody Woodpecker, for example, was wild and crazy. Later on, as the creators began settling down and raising families, characters like Woody became more domesticated. Woody started caring for his nephew and niece, Knothead and Splinter. Meanwhile, over at Looney Tunes, Sylvester the Cat began raising his son. Even Foghorn Leghorn became a father figure to Miss Prissy’s son, Egghead, Jr.
Yes, the post-World War II cartoon characters were different from how they were before the war and for good reason. Part of the reason is because of the fact cartoons were shown in theaters before adult audiences. Also, animators’ real-life personalities seeped into the characters and the characters changed as the creators’ lives changed. And, of course, the fact cartoons started being shown on television meant characters needed to be tamed down a little. But, we’ll get into cartoons being edited for television in another article.
The wonderful thing is all the classic cartoon characters, such as Wood Woodpecker, Andy Panda and Daffy Duck, live on in television reruns and DVD sets. I thoroughly enjoy watching the adventures of old-school characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, whether we are talking about their early cartoons or later episodes. That’s all folks…for now.