10 May 2008

Out Of The (Animated) Past

I recently had an epiphany of sorts. I have been wondering as of late why I am so fascinated with Art Deco. Though I am three quarters of a century removed from the heyday of the Jazz Age, it has nevertheless always felt very familiar to me. I was watching a few cartoons on YouTube which I remember watching in the bygone days of my childhood. After a quick bit of research, I realized that a good number of these dated from the mid-to-late-1930s.

Like most American children--and a good many European children, I imagine--I grew up with the Warner Bros. pantheon of cartoon characters. Most of these, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, came into existence in the late 1930s, but did not take on their iconic forms until the 1940s and 1950s. As much as I liked the cartoons featuring those famous figures, it was always the older ones from which they were absent that captured my imagination. They always seemed so ancient--watching these cartoons was like looking into another world. And in many ways, it was. The Jazz Age was swept out of the popular subconscious by World War II, and was further buried by the newfound prosperity and technological progressiveness of the Atomic Age.

The Second World War was such a momentous event in the American mythos that we have become accustomed to thinking of the entire spectrum of Western history as part of two eras--before and after Pearl Harbor. In my younger years, I thought that way myself. Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and the Jazz Age all fell into that largely homogenized morass of the before; American popular culture had become (and continues to be) so far removed from anything before December 7, 1941 that Cicero and Horace might as well be contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln and Douglas Fairbanks.

That is why I, as a young American, found those old cartoons so fascinating. It was a way of looking into that forgotten world, a way more real in my child's eyes than any history book I could have read.

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