One in a series of posts dedicated to pop-culture depictions of beavers — as symbolic representations of Americans — from 1904–2003. The series derives its title from Thomas Carlyle’s warning about merely instinctive labor.
The Eager Beaver (1946) is a Merrie Melodies cartoon that begins by mocking the busy-as-a-beaver trope.
The narration is knowingly saccharine and treacly — the way that kids were talked to once upon a time, we’re given to understand, but shouldn’t be any longer.
The beavers are goofing off, not building dams or lodges. It’s like a scene from The Truman Show — we’re catching a glimpse of the strange truth.
When these beavers work in concert to “dam a river,” they end up swearing at it. As in a Twenties-era cartoon, the beavers use each other as tools… but here it’s played as absurd rather than ingenious.
Once the beavers do get down to working hard, the titular Eager Beaver — a sort of village idiot — shows up, and causes chaos. So this cartoon mocks not only the busy-as-a-beaver trope but the eager-beaver trope, too. He’s sent on a mission impossible, to get him out of the way… but somehow he does end up saving the day. Which ultimately suggests that it’s better to be an eager beaver than a busy beaver; there’s a lesson in here, somewhere, about how an emergent trope unseats and dispossesses a dominant one.