Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.