Norman M. Klein on the Use of Sound in 1920s Cartoons

by Florence Sunnen

“Sound could not damage the integrity of the story in a cartoon. Quite the contrary. The cartoon was already a fractured narrative. Instead of the shot or the motivated character, the atomic unit was the gag – and the flimsiest excuse justified a gag. Sound enhanced the broken narrative within the cartoon. The characters could be stopped in mid-crisis by a shift between voice and music: a sort of Tin Pan Alley alienation device. The false note was more important than the true. There was tinny music (later called Mickey Mouse music), as disembodied voices, creaking stairways offscreen, ghoulish laughs, boop-boop-a-doops.”

Versatility of the drawn line in silent cartoons:

“New visual gags were possible. Inanimate objects could not only look alive, they could sound alive as well. Animals became as versatile as Felix’s tail. A turtle was sprung like a couch; trees could mumble to each other in the wind; skeletons could tap out xylophone music; knees could shake rhythm to a tinny rag. On the other hand, some advantages of the silent cartoon were lost. Music replaced text as the ideogram. […] Felix could no longer turn a question mark into a skyhook with the same effect, or tip his head or turn his tail into a valise. The graphic ideogram was replaced by syncopation.”


Norman M. Klein – 7 Minutes. The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon.