Manitoba History: Review: Gene Walz, Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson
by Marilyn Baker
Number 37, Spring / Summer 1999
By the early 20th century the language of popular humour had become quite accessible. Work by cartoon masters, such as Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928), revered for his single image Yellow Kid serial, and Rudolph Dirks (1877-1968), the creator of the popular Katzenjammer Kids (Captain and the Kids), were regular features in major North American papers and available through syndication almost everywhere.  This was the golden age of illustration which included the proliferation of the comic strip as a form of mass entertainment. Indeed, there are those who have argued that the truly great “American” art of the early 20th century was mass media entertainment rather than the pretentious art stuff more ceremoniously displayed on museum walls. Professor Walz of the Film Studies program at the University of Manitoba and the author of Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson might agree. In his book Walz eulogizes Thorson’s art, while also painting a clear picture of his subject’s shortcomings. Thorson was a hard living, under educated, talented, perpetually on the move, endearing, difficult, intelligent and distressing character whose preferred medication was alcohol. 
In Chapter One: “A Life That Might Have Been,” Walz notes that Thorson grew up in the Lutheran/Unitarian world of immigrant Icelanders preferring boxing, billiards and card playing to other more serious activity. He showed an early aptitude for drawing; a 1909 cartoon for the Icelandic newspaper Heimskingla was one of his first published pieces. In 1914 Thorson married Ranka Swanson who shortly after their marriage produced a son Karl (called Charlie). Now twenty-four years old Thorson, who had been something of a wanderer, began to work for Brigden’s Limited, the Winnipeg commercial art firm that produced much advertising for Eaton’s and eventually their catalogue. 
Walz draws us into Thorson’s personal story quite well. 1916 was a terrible year. Not only did Thorson’s wife and favorite brother Stephen die, but his only child the following January. Yet throughout it all Thorson continued to work and improve as an artist. In the layout of the book Professor Walz seems to be demonstrating this evolution by the fine illustration of a horseman—a skeletal figure of death brandishing a sword dripping with blood (p. 38)—but because there is no date on this work or even a title it is difficult to know if the illustration has been chosen to dramatize Thorson’s personal tragedies or as an indication of Thorson’s growing talent as a commercial artist, or both. Such lapses of documentation are the major shortcoming of what appears to be a thoroughly researched book. While the text sometimes clarifies sources and references it would have been a benefit to both lay reader and future researcher to include a bibliography and footnotes. Without these references it is difficult to assess the range of Walz’ research, which appears extensive, or even to follow up on it.
In Chapter Two: “From Goolietown to Tinseltown” Walz continues Thorson’s tale. He describes his advertisements for Pantages Theatre in Edmonton about 1918 which celebrate the charm of low brow taste: “When you have seen the two Hayatakes perform, you have seen the most that vaudeville has to offer.” or “Happy Jack Gardner He has no cause for happiness in this episode of his wild army career.” In April 1922 in Winnipeg Thorson married Ada Tesluck. It was not a successful union and by May of 1923 the marriage, though it produced a son Stephen, was in trouble. Soon Charlie was in Chicago. Even at this date Thorson apparently wished to play on a larger stage. He hoped that his serial “Cap’n Bill’s Fantastic Tales,” inspired by Winsor McCay’s (1867-1934) very successful and original Little Nemo serial, might provide a platform for his talents. If this was his objective he was frustrated in it and returned to Winnipeg and his job at Brigden’s Limited to work on Eaton’s catalogue. There, according to Walz, he occupied a privileged position. His boozing, however, was noticeable and at least one of his stunts, which involved covering the walls of the women’s washroom with illustrations both hilarious and obscene, today might have mandated his termination or at the very least a stern warning. By 1934 Thorson was ready to make another move. Apparently he saw an opportunity in the developing animation industry in Los Angeles. Walz editorializes: “Perhaps as much as anything, this feeling that he had something to contribute is what convinced Charlie to pack his portfolio and go to California.” Thorson’s departure coincided with a massive talent search that Disney had urged Ontario born Donald W. Graham, an employee, to launch for talented artist/animators. 
In Chapter Three: “Working in the House that Walt Built” Walz recounts Thorson’s initial experiences at the Disney studio, a male bastion, where Thorson seemed to have found a home. In fact Thorson was frustrated by the Disney studio set up. He felt that his contribution to projects was submerged by the Disney name and had difficulty accepting the anonymity that even the most skillful worker experienced. Before leaving Disney Thorson expressed his discontent poetically and publicly by pinning this ditty up on a Disney studio bulletin board: “And still I see in every store/Books and pictures by the score/All signed by Dizzy’s bogus name/Symbols of unblushing shame.” (p. 87)
Nevertheless, Thorson received invaluable encouragement while working for Disney, indoctrination and training in Disney studio’s aesthetic to “think cute”, and an invaluable credential for future employment opportunities. Many Disney employees contributed to his creative development, such as Albert Hurter, (1883-1946), Gustav Tinggree and Walt Kelly (1913-1973). Walz’ characterization of Hurter, however, as “Coming from the country where Surrealism was born, and leaving that country when Surrealism was in full flower.” (p. 69) not only is wrong about Surrealism, but thoroughly ignores the much more important and earlier European art influences that are a more likely origin of Hurter’s imagery and an important source of the Disney studio look.  Some greater recognition of the 19th century heritage of comic images and popular illustration on which Thorson and so many others relied would, from an art historian’s point of view, have been a nice addition to this book. By contrast Walz’ book excels in his discussions of the early history of animators and animation, which is both detailed and enlightening, and in his discussion of Thorson’s contribution to children’s literature.
In Chapter Four: “A Roller Coaster Year” and Chapter Five “Designing Bugs in Termite Terrace” Walz continues his discussion of Thorson’s career. After Disney Thorson worked at Herman-Isling Studios which in its size was the antithesis of Disney, but, according to Walz, “had become the closest copier of the Disney style of personality animation.” (p. 93) In June 1937 Thorson began to work for MGM as a character artist at what was an extravagant salary. His son joined him in Hollywood and his personal life got even messier when a former Ziegfield Follies beauty sued him for breach of promise. He also worked for a time on an animation project based on Rudolph Dirks’ The Captain and The Kids to which MGM now owned the rights.
Thorson was maybe even more unhappy at MGM than he had been at Disney and wrote a letter, rather than a poem, to his then boss Fred Quimby, to express his dissatisfaction. And so Thorson left MGM just as it was moving into a leading position in animation features. Thorson was more comfortable at Warner Brothers—a raunchy boozy, girl watching, production environment—which perhaps reminded him of Brigden’s. Thorson’s boss at Warner Brothers Leon Schlesinger was determined to initiate animation projects that could compete with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Among the characters that Thorson designed were Sniffles, a rodent, and Inki, whom Walz describes as an African fraternal twin of Hiawatha, Longfellow’s Indian maid whom Thorson had worked on at Disney studios. It is hard not to notice it in Thorson’s work and finally Walz addresses the issue of Thorson’s racial humour. It is Walz’ contention that
I find this hard to buy. Offensiveness is certainly to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but Walz’ tolerance of Thorson’s frequent dependence on minority characters in his art—because he finds Thorson’s treatment of them less grievous—is, in my opinion, to position himself on shaky ground. It seems to me that Walz might also have reflected more fully on the limitations of mass entertainment which more often than not makes light of serious issues and turns cultural diversity into homogenized and palatable moments which is, I think, a not unreasonable characterization of much of Thorson’s art for Disney and after. Walz certainly recognizes the problem with the Inki cartoons when he notes “The Inki films, for obvious reasons ... are rarely screened today.” (pp. 132-133) The racial humor issue comes up again in Chapter Seven when Walz once again praises Thorson for his kindly non racist racial humour amidst less meritorious variations by others: “His “Little Black Sambo” is one of the least racist of the many that circulated widely in that era.”(p.163) In 1945 Thorson’s treatment of John Henry and the Inky Poo was, Walz tells us, even praised by Ebony Magazine (p. 176). 
While at Warner Brothers Thorson contributed other original character work, including The Rainmaker from Sioux Me, the giant and the baby-giant in Porky and the Giant Killer, hoboes for Hobo Gadget Band and an early Bugs Bunny prototype in Hare-Um Scare-um. In Chapter Six, “Bringing a Bit of Hollywood to Miami” and Chapter Seven, “Living on Cigarettes and Pencil Shavings” Walz follows Thorson’s career beyond Hollywood. In 1939 Thorson accepted a job with Max Fleischer and moved to Miami along with some of his co-workers from Warner Brothers. Max and David Fleischer had a long history in silent film and in the 1930s had created Betty Boop, Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto and Wimpy. According to Walz “Their cartoons had more of an adult, urban sensibility; they relied on broad, sometimes vulgar humor ...”(p. 147) Their distributor was Paramount Pictures. The Hays Code of 1934 had forced a toning down of Fleischer’s more adult humor. At Fleishers, Gulliver’s Travels was the major feature underway when Thorson was hired. The Fleischers had also bought the rights to Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and Thorson redesigned them in accordance with his Disney eye.’ After five years Thorson was let go. The war seems to have reduced the opportunities for animation work and in 1940 Thorson decided to focus on book illustration, beginning with the adventure story of a little Indian boy “Keeko’s Dream,” which he began to write and illustrate. In 1941 he found a publisher for “Little Black Sambo” and other serials such as Jack and the Beanstalk which with the addition of a World War I helmet gave an anti-German, anti-war flavour to the marauding giant. Returning to animation work Thorson worked briefly for Terry Toon Studios in 1941 (Paul Terry was the owner). They produced his Cat Meets Mouse a revenge story about a sadistic cat that is overpowered “not by just one mouse but by an army of mice.” (p. 166) Propaganda work was an important source of income during the war years. When Thorson signed with King Features Syndicate access to commercial assignments increased. By 1942 he was in L.A. again and apparently down on his luck when he wrote The Sad Life of Pinias Pill about a man who urinated on a Hitler statue and found himself back in jail.
In Chapter 8, “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times” Walz continues his survey of Thorson’s career. Publication of The Three Bears was followed by Keeko’s Dream which Walz considers Thorson’s masterpiece. Back in Canada Thorson’s “Punkin head” became the poster bear of Canada’s baby boom generation through Eaton’s popularization of it. For a time Thorson lived in Toronto. Another advertising image made popular by Thorson was “Elmer the Safety Elephant”. Walz, however, gives too much credit to Thorson, for this image which is in fact in the tradition of 19th century animal image humour. Having returned briefly to Winnipeg in 1956 Thorson gave up illustration when he resettled in British Columbia.
Criticisms aside, I think Professor Walz’ book Cartoon Charlie is an important contribution to what is a limited literature on commercial artists and children’s literature creators. By recounting the experiences of one artist working in the field of commercial illustration and animation Walz offers important insight into the processes of art production behind mass entertainment and the special problems of existence for the artist working in a collaborative profession. The extensive colour plates and black and white illustrations permit a thorough familiarity with Thorson’s art about which the reader can then draw his or her own conclusions: great art, worthless dreck or somewhere in between.
1. See: Richard Marschall, America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists, New York, 1989.
2. In 1985 Professor Walz included Thorson in a lecture he gave on Winnipeg animators which was prompted by Canadian Richard Condie’s Academy Award nomination for The Big Snit. By 1990 Walz had turned his full attention to Charlie. It would not be unfair to say that this topic has been his obsession for the last nine years. It has also been a journey of discovery which involved penetrating the Icelandic community and interviewing just about everyone that Thorson could have known and some he didn’t. Walz’s association with Thorson’s son Stephen, the product of Thorson’s second marriage, receives notice on the title page of this book and was a crucial source for information on this early illustrator and comic artist turned animation pioneer.
3. Walz’ discussion of certain Brigden artists is misleading. Allison Newton had settled in Winnipeg by 1912 and thus had been working for Eaton’s for a long time; the Le Goff family (Pauline Boutal and her sister Christine) had come to St. Laurent, Manitoba in 1907. Madame Boutal was hired circa 1918 after spending time in France while her husband was in the military. Charles Comfort left Winnipeg about 1924 and seems out of place in Professor Walz’s discussion and to characterize him as a German expressionist influenced artist odd. During what period of his career? Walz’ source for this statement would have been useful.
4. See: John Canemaker, Introduction in Treasures of Disney Animation, New York, 1982, p. 18. See also pp. 18-21 for a more complete discussion of the Disney art school begun in 1935 and the diverse sources of Disney imagery, including the importance of Heinrick Kley, John Tenniel, Lewis Carrol, Winsor McCay, among others.
5. Hurter was born in Switzerland in 1883. He studied architecture in Zurich for three years and art for seven years in Berlin. He emigrated to the United States before the first world war and was soon doing Mutt and lerff cartoons for Bane-Bowers in New York City. According to sources: “His exposure to the European art world and artists like Henrich Kley and Wilhelm Busch, his encyclopedic memory for details, and his fertile, creative mind made him indispensable to both the studio and the young animators.” Surrealism as a movement, however, began officially in France in 1924. Source: http://www.bpib.com/hurter.htm
6. Obviously the tastefulness of racial humour and Disney’s continuing involvement in it is not settled. See: John Allemang, “Fox’s new lineup draws on The PJ’s strength,” Globe and Mail, 6 April 1999, page A17. “When Spike Lee denounced Murphy’s TV show ... Murphy was nowhere to be found ... He’s afraid of Spike, his opponents said. He knows that a cartoon about poor blacks in the ghetto isn’t right, however much Disney paid him.”
7. According to Walz: “Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy are softer and more flexible, more like miniature adults with odd faces. Charlie’s designs are so basic and pure as to be almost abstract, but without being severe or off putting. Gruelle’s designs are homey. Charlie’s are memorable. His characters are movie stars; Gruelle’s are simple illustrations to anchor a reading of the text. Interestingly, Charlie’s characters are most often the models for Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls made today.” (page 155)
Page revised: 18 April 2020