Like the animators he celebrates, Mitenbuler, the author of a history of bourbon, is able to sum up a character with a couple of quick strokes. The MGM studio head, Louis Mayer, “stabbed the air with his cigar when he talked,” and in one well-drawn scene, the singer Helen Kane, who went to court with a charge that Betty Boop was stolen from her stage act, “wore, sticking out of a red hat, a long feather that jabbed her lawyer in the face whenever he leaned in to whisper something.”
In an author’s note, Mitenbuler acknowledges that scenes such as these are “stitched” together from various primary and secondary sources. “Wild Minds” is not a groundbreaking work of research like Michael Barrier’s “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age,” which was built out of hundreds of original interviews, nor does it offer the sharper analysis of Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck’s “Of Mice and Magic.” Indeed, Mitenbuler seems to follow the advice of a Disney instructor he quotes, who says, “The only thing truer than truth was the story.” Story comes first in “Wild Minds.” Anecdotes from artists with fanciful minds and perhaps an ax or two to grind are mixed into accounts based on hard-earned historical work. “Wild Minds” is a highly readable overview, perhaps most useful in animation scholarship for sending readers to the memoirs and biographies it is largely based on, and of course to the cartoons themselves.
Throughout, Mitenbuler is generous with fun facts: Max Fleischer’s lesser-known brother Charles invented the claw-digger machine still operating in arcades. The buzzing of bees in “Fantasia” was achieved by stretching and plucking condoms. Nonetheless, as this story of animation heads into midcentury labor disputes, theme parks and cereal-hawking Saturday morning drivel, the dreams of Winsor McCay seem to fade away. This part of the story would have been enlivened by more time with some of the wilder minds of the later years, especially the man behind Bugs Bunny, Tex Avery, who receives some credit but not nearly enough. (You can see for yourself: Warner Bros. recently released a new volume of its “Tex Avery Screwball Classics” DVD series.)
At times, “Wild Minds” reads like a lamentation. “She was no longer an exciting sensation, she was just another rational adult,” Mitenbuler writes of Betty Boop after the Fleischer Studios watered down her sauciness to comply with Hollywood’s Hays Code. Fortunately, however, we haven’t settled into rationality quite yet. Perhaps beyond the book’s scope, the popular and influential work of the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki may nonetheless be a fitting coda, as it most vividly demonstrates that McCay’s hope for art in animation lives on, wild as ever.