From the Archive – “Serious Business” by Stefan Kanfer (1997)

Serious Business , Stefan Kanfer, Scribner publishers, 1997, paperback $16.00

Stefan Kanfer is described by Chuck Jones as a “whimsical historian” in the foreword to this book, a reminder to us that nothing, not even the Golden Age of animation, exists in a vacuum. He explores the competitive nature of the industry, of the Fleischers’ poor business sense, and the easily wounded sensibilities of Walt Disney (who was willing to pack it in and retire when the army took over his studio space at the start of WWII). Kanfer also reminds us that the world of animation is as much a business as an art, and that both are required for a studio to survive. 
McCay had genius, but limited output. The Bray studios created assembly line mediocrity. Messmer designed and animated Felix, but his alcoholic boss Sullivan smashed the potential for giving the silent-era’s cat a voice. Disney succeed with his well-timed appearance of Mickey just as the markets crashed in the 1920s. As for art, Disney’s initial goals were to be merely as good as the latest Aesop’s Fable. Those were animation’s beginnings. Much of the book deals with the industry’s struggles during the second world war and how Disney began to lose his magic “touch” after Bambi (in fact, Disney began to lose interest in expanding animation as an expressive art form after the expensive failure of Fantasia). World War II also serves as a reminder of the business aspect of the industry in Serious Business, as the European market represented a huge loss of revenue to the studios. Fred Quimby, that bastion of understanding, wanted his animators to go light on Hitler just in case he won. Similar tales were told of Leon Schlesinger, and even the Office of War Information pulled in the reins so as not to offend newly overrun nations with unpleasant caricatures. 
This book is not all “ancient history,” however. While it discusses the effect of McCarthy-era politics on the original Finian’s Rainbow and the evolution of the Children’s Television Workshop, it puts even the present resurgence of animation into perspective, perspective that seems even more prescient in the atmosphere of the most recent recession affecting animators.

– Jim Middleton

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