The 1955 Warner Bros’ cartoon, Goofy Gophers and the Lumberjerks (Freleng), ends with a line from one of the gophers that illustrates the 1950s lifestyle: “Isn’t our house much better than it was before?” he asks his partner as he looks up at a “tree” built of furniture sawed from what had once been their tree home. A television set tops off this house of furniture that stands alone among the stumps—what’s left of a forest clear-cut for its lumber. The gophers seem so happy with their new home—merely commenting that “it will be better when we have electricity.” But after seeing the consequences of “progress” as depicted in the cartoon, devastation of our forests, are we meant to answer “yes” to the gopher’s question? Does the cartoon argue that “our house [is] much better than it was before?”
Jaime Weinman seems to think just the opposite when she argues that Goofy Gophers and the Lumberjerks (1955, Warner Bros, Freleng) is a model “enviro-toon.” She claims that it “never preaches . . . . And instead of showing that only evil people harm the environment, it shows that trees are being chopped down in order to make the things we use every day—in other words, we are the ones harming the environment” (Weinman). Unlike cartoons with anthropomorphized animals or plant life alone, what Weinman calls “enviro-toons” not only humanize nature; they critique abuse of nature and the natural, especially by humans.
We examined over 500 cartoons from the period prior to the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s (from the Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Van Bueren, Paramount, Sullivan, MGM, and the Fleischer studios) and found that such enviro-toons were rare and, as a group, were not attributable to a particular studio or director. Nonetheless cartoons such as Lumberjerks, Porky Chops (1949, Warner Bros, Arthur Davis), or a number of other environmentally-oriented animated shorts from the classical era of Hollywood animation serve as potentially powerful cultural productions. For animators like Freleng, environmental devastation and negative consequences of progress served as comic plot devices rather than a cultural critique. Like Jaime Weinman, however, we argue that these environmental cartoons stand out as model enviro-toons, chiefly because they are less obvious and, as Weinman puts it, “less preachy,” since rhetoric gains strength when its message encounters less resistance. Cartoons like Goofy Gophers and the Lumberjerks address the consequences of so-called progress in ways less obvious (and perhaps more effective) than New Deal documentaries like The River from the 1930s and 40s—and even more recent efforts at environmentalism, in such series as “Captain Planet.”
Our analysis of enviro-toons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s revealed three narrative and aesthetic patterns:
• the power of nature over the human world
• the need for controlling human intervention and nurturing the natural world in order to strengthen their interdependence
• criticism of human exploitation of the natural world
The following analysis discusses representative works in each of these categories, demonstrating the often subtle but nonetheless powerful ecological messages conveyed within the animated shorts. Keeping in mind that the historical and cultural contexts in which these cartoons were produced vary, we argue that ultimately, beliefs about technology, consumerism, and the natural are reflected in, and sometimes critiqued by, these Classic animated shorts.
Nature Versus the Human World
Some cartoons from all three decades examined during this period demonstrate the power of nature over the human world. These more traditional cartoons seem to be a bi-product of the ongoing conflict between “the machine and the natural” (Klein 79). As Klein argues, cartoons are a product of technology and seem also to glorify it ((76). Klein compares this technology behind cartoons to the machina versatilis, which appeared in Italy in the 17th century and, as Jonson suggests, harkened in a “Mechanick Age” (quoted in Klein 76), an industrial age in which industries were causing massive deforestation in England. Industrialization widened the gap between nature and culture, between humans and the natural world. Nature, then, was seen as either a resource source to be exploited or an “enemy” to be controlled. Carolyn Merchant’s study of changes in representations of nature in New England and Annette Kolodny’s examination of American literary representations of women and nature demonstrate the ramification of this historical change. Ecocritics like Lynn White, Jr. and Frederick Turner historicized these representations in useful ways, concluding, too, that the nature/culture binary widened after industrialization in the West.
Some early Felix the Cat cartoons foreground this reemphasized nature/culture binary when they show how stormy weather can spoil a picnic (April Maze) or how sea creatures can fight back to save their own (Neptune Nonsense). April Maze (1930, Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer), a Felix the Cat ‘toon from Sullivan Studios, seems to anticipate New Deal programs that saw nature as a powerful force needing both respect and taming. Tennessee Valley Authority projects, for example, promoted a system of dams to control flooding on big rivers—and to bring electricity to the rural poor. April Maze (1930 Sullivan Studios) is shot in black and white and offers a bleak picture of nature. Michael Barrier explains that Otto Messmer, the cartoon’s director, “never let his audience forget that Felix was as artificial as his environment” (45).
Cartoons from the 1940s, too, reflected this conflict between humans and the natural world. Perhaps as a reaction to World War II, however, superheroes like Superman fought natural elements and won. Norman Klein concurs, suggesting that the World War had just as much of an impact on cartoons as did Hollywood movies like film noir and screwball comedies (183). The Superman series (Fleischer) from this period seems to reflect this impact most visibly. They also exaggerate the machina versatilis, ”update [ing] an old theme of theirs, the film screen as machine” (Klein 86). According to Klein, “The entire screen seems to be made of steel, like a machine housed in black, corrugated metal, with gray canyons beneath skyscrapers, and diabolical machines instead of ghouls” (86).
Several Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s highlight this sustained conflict between humans (or anthropomorphized animal figures) and the natural world, unsurprising coming from the more conservative Disney Studio. Flowers and Trees (1932 Disney, Bert Gillett) , for example, foregrounds idyllic nature’s triumph over an evil anthropomorphized tree stump. As the first color short from Disney, Flowers and Trees won an Academy Award with its Technicolor dancing trees and flowers, romantic tree love story, and overturned jealousy. But the tree stump’s jealous rage is thwarted by birds, who literally put out his fire. The tree stump clearly represents the evil human world, since his tongue is a snake and his goal is to destroy the tree lovers and their forest. In the end, the stump destroys himself and reinforces his non-flora status, since vultures encircle his corpse. Donald Duck and Chip N Dale cartoons of the period follow a similar pattern. All of these cartoons emphasize the power of nature over the human (or anthropomorphized animal) world.
Other cartoons, however, demonstrate the need for controlling human intervention and nurturing the natural world to strengthen their interdependence, most of which were distributed in the 1930s during the height of the New Deal. These cartoons suggest that an equal relationship is possible, even in the modern world, where technology and industry threaten nature and the natural world. But they also do demonstrate an awareness that humans can impact negatively on their natural environments. Except for a near-remake, all of the cartoons we noted that follow this pattern come from the 1930s, primarily after the Hays Code became more stringently enforced. Cartoon story lines between 1934 and 1938 seemed most affected by the Hays Office agenda (Klein 46). Klein states that the “controller persona” in each cartoon “increasingly had to speak for justice and perseverance” (47), even in relation to elements of the natural world. Klein even suggests that Might Mouse saved the day “like a cartoon New Dealer damming a flooding river” (47). Four of the five cartoons represented here seem to follow this narrative structure.
Another Felix the Cat cartoon, Neptune Nonsense (1936, Van Bueren, Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer), its near remake, Seapreme Court (the near remake) (1954 Famous Studios/ Paramount, Seymour Kneitel), Molly Moo Cow and the Butterflies (1935, Van Bueren, Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer), and Spinning Mice (1935, Van Bueren, Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer)—both from the Van Bueren Studio—and the Warner Brothers Bosco cartoon, Trees Knees (1930, Warner Bros, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising) seem to encourage interdependence between species, both in the wild and in captivity.
Criticism of Human Exploitation of the Natural World
More important to the environmental movement (and to us), however, are those cartoons primarily from the post-World War II era of progress, like Porky Chops (1949, Warner Bros, Arthur Davis) and Lumber Jerks (1955, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng). We argue that these cartoons critique human exploitation of nature in more subtle, yet dramatic—and effective—ways than do the other cartoons we examined. These cartoons illustrate the consequences of rampant consumerism that serves as a sign of progress—devastation of the natural world. Instead of looking at nature from the skewed perspective of a speeding cars, these cartoons (among others) show us what’s wrong with what Wilson calls “the cultural taming of the American Wilderness” (34) and provide real reasons for embracing Aldo Leopold’s conservation esthetic.
For example, two Warner Brothers’ cartoons seem to illustrate Aldo Leopold’s view of recreation gone wrong: Tweet Tweet Tweety (1950, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng) and Hare Conditioned (1945, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones). Tweet Tweet Tweety (1950 Warner Bros) opens in a National Forest overridden with Trailers. A sign commands, “Bird and Game Refuge—No Hunting or Fishing, by order of the Game Commissioner,” but, ironically, the object of the cartoon is Sylvester’s hunt for Tweety. The cartoon, however, does more than highlight Sylvester’s failure to capture his bird. Instead, as in Leopold’s explanation of recreation in a mechanized world, it juxtaposes natural wonders with signs of “progress” in a modern culture. In a National Forest, we see Acme Bridge Builders equipment. Redwood trees are cut down, too, their logs floating down a stream to a saw mill. A natural geyser erupts, but only when a clock (another sign of progress) urges it on. At the end, to save himself, Tweety shuts off dam water. Sylvester, as usual, fails, but dams, bridge building equipment and sawmills seem also to have won, mechanizing nature even in National Parks like Yellowstone.
Hare Conditioned (1945, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones), on the other hand, takes the artificiality of outdoor recreation to an extreme. The Bugs Bunny cartoon opens up in what looks like a campground in a national forest. Bugs hops beside a tent and a campfire, but then a whistle blows, the scene changes to a long shot that reveals an audience seated in front of Bugs and his camp, and the camp scene turns into a department store window display. Here outdoor recreation is not only mechanized (as Leopold argues). It’s an illusion.
Even though Fox Pop (1942, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones) came out during WWII, it critiques consumerism in two ways, one of which clearly takes the environment—or at least animal life—into consideration. The cartoon opens with a fox stealing a radio, taking it into the woods, and destroying it. Two magpies wonder why the fox made such a racket, so the fox tells his story—in flashback. The radio serves as source of an advertisement that reels the fox in. Outside a window, “Fox Pop” hears about silver foxes being worn about town by the up and coming socialites, so he craves such stardom and works hard to get himself trapped and captured—even going so far as to paint himself silver. At the silver fox farm, foxes are locked up in jail cells and ready to break out. A large silver fox in the cell beside our hero’s tries to warn fox about his fate, but the little fox wants to decorate a socialite’s neck—that is, until he reads about losing his skin. He escapes and a funny chase scene ensues, with dogs beating him up even after a creek washes off the silver paint. No longer lured in by advertising, the fox destroys the radio. Rampant consumerism—even when commodities were being rationed—proves too dangerous for our protagonist, the fox, who happily escapes with his skin. But the radio as purveyor of a message so powerful it reaches even its prospective victim, the fox, seems the worst culprit here. The cartoon seems to say that it’s not the silver fox farm or even the executioner bearing an ax who’s at fault. It’s a manipulative advertising campaign that creates a market for silver foxes and, without the ads, foxes would be safe.
In 1948, according to Klein, the studio system changed. Studios were no longer allowed to maintain vertical monopolies, so their theatre chains were sold out, and film (and cartoon) distribution was transferred to “independent jobbers” (206). By 1953, Jack Warner “ordered the animation units [temporarily] to close down, to make way for 3D movies” (Klein 206). Television became a new media, and fewer movie screens were available for audiences. All of these factors led to what Klein calls a “stripped-down” version of cartoons. Klein argues that a “mixture of ebullience and paranoia can be seen very clearly in fifties cartoons, in the stories and the graphics” (207). According to Klein, this mixture “is particularly evident in cartoons about consumer life” (207). The conflict between humans and machines consumerism has bred is explored in cartoons like Duck Amuck (1953, Warner Bros, Chuck Jones). And in cartoons like Little Brown Jug (1948, Famous Studios/Paramount, Seymour Kneitel), Porky Chops (1949, Warner Bros, Arthur Davis), Boobs in the Woods (1950, Warner Bros, Robert McKimson) and Lumber Jerks (1955, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng) the conflict extends to the natural resources necessary to create consumer goods.
Of the cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s and 50s we viewed, however, the one most clearly an enviro-toon is Goofy Gophers and the Lumber Jerks (1955, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng). Lumber Jerks (1955 Warner Bros) seems to emanate from an attitude in 1950s America Klein calls “Consumer Cubism” (210), “an obsession with the efficient, angular plan.” The faster a consumer could gain access to goods, the better. Klein claims that “individualism and democracy were being redefined in terms of consumer desire. The homogeneous surface, open and ‘free,’ came to stand in for America’s imperium” (210). These attitudes were reflected in both narrative and aesthetics of cartoons after 1954.
Like Porky Chops (1949 Warner Bros) and the Donald Duck/Chip N Dale cartoons (Disney), Lumber Jerks first focuses on saving one tree in a forest—but the conclusion differs dramatically. Two cheerful gophers scurry toward their home tree, but when they go up into the hollow of the tree, they find it has been cut down and carried away. The two gophers take steps to retrieve their tree—what they call their property—tracking it to a river and then picking it out of the hundreds of logs floating on the water. They climb on their tree and row away but cannot fight the current and nearly go over a waterfall. Once they escape, one gopher exclaims, “I’m bushed,” and the two fall asleep, waking up only after entering a lumber mill and living through a saw blade cutting their tree trunk in two.
After seeing the devastation around them, the gophers state the obvious about the repercussions of consumerism. One of the gophers explains, “It looks like they are bent on the destruction of our forests,” and the scene shifts to the mill’s workings. One “shot” shows trees ground into sawdust being made into artificial fireplace logs. Another shows an entire tree being “sharpened” to produce one toothpick. Then the gophers discover what had happened to their own tree: “They’re going to make furniture out of our tree,” states one of the gophers.
But the idea of ownership of consumer goods extends to the gophers and their tree home. They wish to reclaim their property, their own possession, so the other gopher exclaims, “That is definitely our property. We must think of a way to repossess it.” The gophers siphon the gas out of the furniture truck and, when it breaks down, “steal” their tree’s furniture from the truck. They build a tree house with the furniture, adding branches for good measure and topping the tree off with a television set. The cartoon ends with one of the gophers telling the other, “Isn’t our home much better than it was before ….[we have] Television… and just think how much better it will be with electricity!” Because the gophers view their tree home as a possession not unlike the furniture produced from its wood, they seem pleased with their “repossession.” But the enviro-toon leaves viewers feeling ambivalent about the price of progress.
Lumber Jerks (1955, Warner Bros, Friz Freleng) combines a critique of consumerism with a statement about its source—natural wilderness—but seems to also endorse interdependence between humans and the natural world (and between progress and conservation), at least to the extent that furniture built from a tree trunk can return to the forest as the Goofy Gophers’ home. With its overt focus on consumerism, however, the ‘toon goes further than the other shorts we examined here. It seems to leave viewers questioning the Goofy Gopher’s conclusion stated in this article’s opening: “Isn’t our house much better than it was before?”
As Klein suggests in his discussion of Tex Avery’s Car of Tomorrow and Farm of Tomorrow, consumers may become “victimized by the very machines that promise an easier, more extravagant life” (211). After all, the consumer goods that make up the trunk of one tree were built from the trees of an entire forest. Lumberjerks, especially, reflects an increasing ambivalence toward technology and post-World War II progress in an increasingly more complex (and anxiety-ridden) nuclear age. Here the Goofy Gopher’s successfully negotiate between the wonders of modernism and its impact on both natural and human worlds Paul Wells discusses. But it’s a negotiation that’s impossible in the world outside cartoons. Still, Klein’s argument that “cartoons [are] ever the barometer of changes in entertainment” may also include changes in mainstream American culture. Unlike cartoons that either maintain the nature/culture binary, or those that seek to reconcile it through the intervention of a controller, classic shorts that critique our treatment of the natural world respond explicitly to changes in the American cultural context and illustrate an ambivalence towards Modernism and its ramifications.
All three categories of cartoons we have highlighted, however, serve as enviro-toons that do more than present nature or a landscape; they confront the natural in increasingly complex ways.
After studying approximately 500 cartoons from the classic period, our conclusions are simple: Even within the constraints both technology and ideology placed on the enviro-toons included here, at least a few cartoons from the 1930s, 40s and 50s stand out as powerful statements both for conservation and against environmental waste. If Wells and Klein are right, these few enviro-toons do engage with repercussions of progress in a modern world. The environmental movement as we know it did not begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In a nod to conservationists like Aldo Leopold, environmentalism was a growing concern before during and after World War II, at least in the world of animated film.