Classics : Go Dog.Go ! ( 1961) by P.D. Eastman

The Red Scare of the 1950s helped create this hymn to perpetual motion.

by Gordon Campbell

There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.

Philip Eastman’s Go Dog. Go! is one of those books once read, never forgotten. Like a catchy Top 40 tune, the ceaseless rhythm and motion in this book is so compelling that surrender is the only option. For years, I hadn’t been sure whether P.D. Eastman wasn’t another nom de plume for Dr Seuss, but not so. While Philip Dey Eastman was certainly a friend and workmate of Theodor Geisel aka Dr Seuss, he was an accomplished writer and artist in his own right – and a victim of some of the turbulent political events in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s.

Six or so weeks ago – November 25th 2009 – was the 100th anniversary of Eastman’s birth. Born in Massachusetts, he studied design at college in Amherst and spent his early working life in the two great cartoon factories of the so called Golden Age of animation – first in production design and story development at Disney studios from the mid 1930s until 1941, and much more briefly, at Warner Brothers. During his Disney period, Eastman met and married Mary Louise Whitman, who had been working in the ink and paint department. His two most popular books Are You My Mother? (1960) and Go Dog. Go! (1961) were written much later, when Eastman was in his 50s and down on his luck.

As the amusing Wikipedia entry for Go Dog. Go! indicates, the book serves children pretty well as an introduction to colour, space and movement. For the sanity of parents required to read it dozens of times, it also manages to pack some character detail into its bare-bones storyline:

Throughout the book, details in Eastman’s illustrations seem to invite the reader to notice the deeper significance of small things. The girl dog asks the boy dog if he likes her hat with its little flower: he does not; they part. Several pages later, we meet them again. Now they are riding scooters, she has a hat with a feather. Again, he does not like her hat, but as they part, he has made off with the feather. In their final meeting her hat is even more elaborate and finally meets the approval of the boy dog. In this way, a relationship is developed between the characters despite the simplicity of the text….

In similar blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion, the little blue dog who is the only one in the huge bed still awake at dead of night, is also – come the dawn – the only dog still asleep when all the other dogs bound out to greet the morning.

Given the popularity of Eastman’s books – Go, Dog. Go! has also been adapted for the stage – there is a surprising lack of information readily available about him. According to the animation artist Tom Sito, Eastman had been a union activist at Disney during the deeply traumatic strike that occurred at the Mouse House in January 1941, and that eventually involved half to two thirds ( the tallies vary) of its creative staff.

At the time, the Disney empire was on the brink of disaster in the wake of the commercial failure of Fantasia. To salvage the studio’s finances, the relatively cheap Dumbo was being rushed into production. An artistic triumph in its right, Dumbo ultimately generated enough cash flow to keep Disney afloat until Bambi got finished, and these dual successes finally made Disney financially secure. All that though, lay in the future. In early 1941, the strike posed an agonising dilemma for many Disney artists. Should you strike for better wages or conditions for your family and support your friends on the picket line – but perhaps kill Dumbo and the entire studio in the process ?

Eastman chose to join the strikers. John Hubley, one of Disney’s great early team (he had worked on Snow White) left after the strike folded and created what became the UPA studio, and Eastman joined him there. UPA used a sparser, less realistic style than Disney. It tended to utilize one cel for every two or three frames of film, as opposed to the one cel per frame standard at Disney, and this cheaper UPA style took some time to find an audience. Eventually, UPA had hits with a series about the comically shortsighted Mr Magoo, and with its groundbreaking Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons. By then, the political storm clouds were gathering again.

At the outset of the Red Scare, Walt Disney testified in 1947 before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the ‘communists’ in the animators union, which included some of his own workers. By 1952, the poisonous political atmosphere that became known as McCarthyism induced UPA to fire Hubley, and to let go most of his staff. Eastman soon found work very hard to get in Hollywood throughout the 1950s, or anywhere else. Invaluably, Ted Geisel aka Dr Seuss was a friend ( and fellow liberal thinker ) and helped him out.

During the war, Eastman and Dr Seuss had done their military service in the same Army Signal Corps film unit, where they helped to churn out Army orientation films under the command of the great Hollywood director, Frank Capra. If you check out Phil Eastman’s IMDB site, the films they made included such forgotten treasures as No Buddy Atoll, In the Aleutians, Private Snafu Presents Seaman Tarfu in the Navy and A Few Quick Facts; Inflation. When the political blacklist made jobs scarce, it was Geisel who first urged Eastman ( this was in 1954) to try his hand at children’s books, Six years later, Are You My Mother? and Go Dog. Go! opened up an entirely new career. By then, Eastman was 51 years old.

It wasn’t perhaps, all that big a vocational leap. Other former Disney artists ( such as Bill Peet ) had made the same transition into children’s books.. “ I’ve always considered myself primarily a writer,” Eastman once said, “with the picture-maker in me being a secondary asset…but I feel I’m most successful in the dual role of writer and illustrator.”

Certainly, the wit and momentum that made Go Dog. Go ! such a standout makes the book feel like a Golden Age piece of animation transferred to the printed page. It was the culmination of decades of training in visual story telling. Eastman himself could see the links to his former profession, and once described his own style as “representational, and cartoonish. ” Stylistically, the method could hardly have been more simple. Eastman would typically use only two or three colours to fill out his non photographic ‘blue pencil” original black lines.

The conclusion of Go Dog, Go ! is also cinematic, and could have come out of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Like many a Hollywood hero before and since, the boy dog and the girl dog drive off into the sunset together, brought together by the splendour of her party hat. For the first time, the dogs are driving at a leisurely pace, contented in love. That’s all, folks – at least until you have to read Go Dog. Go ! again. For some real life variants on Go Dog Go ! you should check out this video, and this one.