1. 1914: A Prehistoric Dinosaur Leads the Wave of the Future
In the early 20th century, theaters were already showing animated films on the big screen, but the characters were usually no more than spokesdrawings for various advertisers. That is, until Winsor McCay drew his way onto the scene in 1914. The legendary cartoonist, who'd earlier become famous with his classic comic strip, "Little Nemo," believed that animated characters could hold an audience's attention without the help of a sales pitch. With that in mind, McCay created the groundbreaking film Gertie the Dinosaur.
The most innovative part about the movie's animation was the way McCay interacted with it. Gertie actually started out as part of McCay's "chalk talk" vaudeville act, and rather than having Gertie attempt talking via speech balloons, McCay spoke for both of them. Standing on stage next to a projected image of the dinosaur and holding a whip, he would bark out commands like, "Dance, Gertie!" Then, suddenly, the image would change and she would obey. In another sequence, McCay would toss an apple behind the screen and the impish dinosaur would appear to catch it in her mouth.
Eventually, McCay was ready to let Gertie loose on the big screen by herself. Using cell animation and drawing thousands of illustrations of his beloved dinosaur, he turned Gertie into one of the first successful character-based animated cartoons. With such ingenuity and style, it's clear why McCay was often called "The Father of American Cartoons."
2. 1920s: Charles Lindbergh and the Queen Fall for the Same Cat
Because live-action films were such a big hit with moviegoers, early cartoon characters were often modeled on popular actors of the day. One such cartoon character was Master Tom—a black feline with enormous eyes and an inviting ear-to-ear grin. His creator, legendary animator Otto Messmer, based the cat's personality on silent-film star Charlie Chaplin. Fitting because, within a year, a slightly boxier version of the cat, now named Felix, started appearing regularly in animated shorts before Chaplin's feature films.
The fact that cartoon characters were still speaking in speech balloons hardly affected Felix's popularity. By 1923, the cat's star power at the box office rivaled not only Chaplin's, but Buster Keaton's and Fatty Arbuckle's, as well. From Germany to China, people were fascinated by the technology that enabled Felix to take his tail off and turn it into a pencil or a question mark or a shovel, and they couldn't wait to see what gags Messmer would dream up next. In fact, the wily feline became such a celebrity in Great Britain that Queen Mary named her own cat after him. Back in America, Felix's popularity continued to soar, literally, as a picture of him accompanied Charles Lindbergh on his historic flight across the Atlantic. The character's adventures didn't stop there, though; Felix was also the first image ever successfully transmitted by RCA during its early TV experiments.
3. 1920s: Doing It for the Kids
Although Walt Disney's impact on the world of animation can't be downplayed, much of the credit for the studio's trademark style belongs to animator Ub Iwerks. A boyhood pal of Walt's, Iwerks served as Disney's righthand man. And where Disney had the business sense, Iwerks had the technical know-how to create characters that moved with fresh elasticity. Mickey Mouse's predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was Iwerks' creation. Oswald had big floppy ears that appeared almost rubbery when he walked. So while characters like Felix the Cat might have squeezed themselves through telephone lines, Disney characters had a softer profile. Ultimately, it upped the hugability factor, and that paid off with a whole new audience—children.
4. 1928: When the Mouse Speaks, People Listen
While Disney's animation house floated by for a while, it wasn't until Walt made his first "talkie" that America truly started buzzing about him. 1928's Steamboat Willie signaled the end of the silent-film era. Disney had followed engineers' experiments with sound and film throughout the 1920s, and he was convinced talkies were the future. Even though Mortimer Mouse (who Disney's wife wisely re-christened Mickey) never actually speaks a complete sentence during Steamboat Willie, he more than makes up for it with his whistling—not to mention his energetic xylophone performance on the teeth of an open-mouthed bovine.
The combination of dazzling, synchronized music and pictures of a kid-friendly, large-eared mouse made Mickey and Walt Disney household names. In fact, the success of Steamboat Willie spawned a stream of new films, including 1929's The Opry House—the movie in which Mickey dons his trademark white gloves for the first time.
5. 1930s: Marketing Kills the Animation Star
Although cartoons continued to be made for adults first, children second, one thing in the industry did change. From about 1930 onwards, many of Disney's merchandising efforts were geared toward kids. In addition to Mickey Mouse dolls, there were combs, watches, pencils, T-shirts, coins, and even bedsheets—all of them exported the world over. It wasn't long before Mickey became one of the most recognizable symbols of America. In 1935, The League of Nations proclaimed Mickey Mouse a "symbol of universal goodwill."
All that attention came with plenty of responsibility, though. The economic pressure of the marketing strategy forced Disney to erase Mickey's mischievous side and turn him into an all-around Mr. Nice Guy. And while the move succeeded in boosting merchandising sales, it did the opposite for Mickey's on-screen popularity. The mouse's star power was soon usurped by the naughtier, hot-tempered Donald Duck, who made it cool to be bad. Disney attempted a comeback for the mouse by giving Mickey a more bad-boy role in 1940's Fantasia, but the film was a box office flop. It wasn't until The Mickey Mouse Club premiered in 1955 that Mickey began to regain his star status.
6. 1930: Betty Boop Gets Sexed Up (and Shot Down)
During the early days of animation, Disney's studio wasn't the only one having trouble defining its characters' personalities. Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye) also had a giant hit on his hands with the seductive, garter-wearing flapper Betty Boop. However, some theater managers began reporting that their conservative audiences found the pint-size coquette too risquÃ©, and in 1935, Betty became the first cartoon character to be censored by the Hays Office. Forced to make a change, Fleischer responded by transforming her into a more wholesome and domesticated lady. Sadly, the makeover proved fatal. By the end of the decade, Betty had fallen into her own Great Depression, never to be heard boop-boopy-dooping again.
7. 1933: Toons Get Looney
Four of the most original and creative artists ever to come along—Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, and Robert McKimson—had a different philosophy when it came to their animated creations: the zanier, the better. As the minds behind such classic characters as Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny, the animators made sure their stars ran wild, shouted at the top of their lungs, and killed, maimed, blew up, slugged, shot, and destroyed their foes. They even dressed 'em up in drag when the occasion called for it. As the Warner Brothers slogan promised at the beginning of each film, these were, indeed, Looney Tunes.
But it wasn't just their wackiness that made the Looney Tunes the largest collection of animated stars any studio had ever created. It was their animators' inventiveness. Bugs and Daffy were two of the first characters aware of their own cartoon-ness, which meant they were not only characters, but actors, as well. And while Felix the Cat may have been able to turn his tail into a baseball bat, Bugs Bunny could play pitcher, catcher, umpire, and himself all at the same time.
8. 1941: Animators Strike Back
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might have had a happy ending, but for the animators working behind the scenes, things were less than fairytale. Cramming to meet the film's deadline, many artists worked well into the night with the understanding that they'd get bonuses once the film earned back its money. The film grossed oodles, but instead of doling out bonuses, Disney earmarked his handsome profits for a new studio he wanted built in Burbank. Fighting back, the Screen Cartoonists Guild went up against the Disney powerhouse in 1941. The ensuing strike lasted more than two months, and it took a White House intervention to halt it. The dispute was only settled when F.D.R. sent in mediators and forced Walt to cave.
Although the strike served as a disappointing reality check in the animation world, it ultimately sparked a series of positive changes in the industry. Artists were finally given on-screen credit for their work, and wages for 40-hour weeks doubled.
9. 1942: X Marks the Rating
At times, the Warner Brothers' lunacy knew no bounds. During World War II, they created racy cartoons solely for American soldiers stationed in Europe. Full of expletives, X-rated images, and the occasional scatological humor, these animated shorts featured an inept trainee named Private Snafu. Amazingly, one of Snafu's writers was Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
Other wartime WB cartoons created for regular civilian consumption featured edgy characterizations of Hitler and Mussolini that would never pass military muster today. For instance, in "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," Bugs sells ice cream bars stuffed with hand grenades to Japanese soldiers he affectionately calls "Slant Eyes." Not exactly politically correct by modern standards.
10. 1956: Cartoons Go Prime Time
Following the disillusionment of the Disney strike in 1941, hundreds of animators were motivated to set out on their own. Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow were three of the most notable Disney artists to take the opportunity to head in a new direction. The result was United Productions of America, better known as UPA.
Whereas every year Disney pushed its cartooning style further toward realism and literalism, UPA pushed its style toward contemporary art. Disney's characters were soft and cuddly, while UPA's were angular and almost cold. And while Disney was mainly interested in animating animals, UPA made humans the stars of its films—and it paid off.
One of its first big hits was Gerald McBoing-Boing (the brainchild of Dr. Seuss, who collaborated with UPA on the series), which beat out both Tom & Jerry and Mr. Magoo for the 1951 Oscar. In 1956, CBS turned the film short into a Sunday afternoon TV series. And although the show didn't last nearly as long as later animated series such as The Flintstones, McBoing-Boing—and the UPA animators—have had a huge impact on the world of animation. From the minimalist backgrounds of Spongebob Squarepants to the flat, cutout look of South Park, the studio has influenced more than a half-century of cartoons by showing animators that it's OK to avoid realism altogether.