I wrote this a few years ago for the Cookd and Bombd forum. Been meaning to tidy it up a bit. Now seems as good a time as any.
Over the last few years, Warners released beautiful box sets of remastered and restored Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons – 4 dvd’s per set, everything you could possibly want in the way of bonus features. Commentaries, music-only tracks, documentaries, storyboards – the lot.
One thing that worried a few people is whether Warners ever intended to complete the project and release every single short subject made – which covers a period of roughly the early thirties right through to the mid-sixties. The tenor of some ‘toons may be seen as being unacceptable in these supposedly more enlightened days.
Volume 3 of the “Golden Collection” (released a couple of years ago) laid the groundwork for the possible future release of some of these efforts, with a disclaimer opening every disk from Whoopi Goldberg (“some of these caricatures were unacceptable then, and they’re unacceptable now. However, we present them unedited and in context…”), which is one way to go, I suppose. Not only that, but the volumes came with a disclaimer on the back – “aimed at the adult collector”. Looked like they would make good on their stated intention to release the lot eventually. As it turned out, the “Golden Collection” ground to a halt. Warners have said that they’ll be releasing more in the future, but not in this format. Goodness knows what they have in mind, but presumably options are being reviewed. We’ll have to wait and see.
However, there’s one potential area where things get tricky – “the censored 11”. When the rights passed to Ted Turner for a large chunk of the Warners pre-1948 cartoon catalogue, he absolutely point-blank refused to allow eleven of the subjects through. Except for the odd one that’s slipped out on various fly-by-night labels, none of these 11 has been in circulation since.
I thought I’d have a look at these 11, and see how they stand up now. Hope it’s of interest to someone.
Hittin’ the Trail To Hallelujah Land (1931, Harman and Ising)
Piggy and his girlfriend take a boat trip down the Mississippi. Piggy falls in the Mississippi, is attacked by a crocodile and barely makes it back on board alive. Meanwhile, “Uncle Tom”, the manservant of Piggy’s girlfriend, fetches up in a graveyard and is menaced by the inhabitants before being reunited with his companions in time to save Piggy’s girlfriend from the evil attentions of a shady fellow passenger.
Hm. Apart from Uncle Tom, this one’s fairly innocuous. Tom is a pretty careless caricature, but at least he’s portrayed as a nice guy, if dim-witted. There’s a lot worse to come, although a final gag with a buzz-saw is extremely nasty.
Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time (1936, Friz Freleng)
An inveterate gambler by name of Nicodemus takes a bump on the head and is packed off to hell, where he receives a dire warning of his fate if he doesn’t stop gambling on a Sunday and take himself off to church immediately.
This one’s nasty. Full on “mammy” stereotyping, and general dimwittedness amongst the inhabitants of the deep south. Oddly moral though, in that there is at least an attempt to persuade the central character to “reform” for the good of his soul. Interesting, but you can definitely see why this one went. Still, it’s not as bad as…
Clean Pastures (Freleng, 1937)
Friz Freleng again, this time giving us a tale of the licentiousness of Harlem, and the dire financial troubles facing “Pair-o-dice” (Heaven) as the stocks for “Hades Inc.” skyrocket. God sends a dimwitted angel down to preach the good book, and is ignored by everyone in Harlem – until God calls in the heavenly hosts of rhythm (Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford and – astonishingly – Al Jolson) to preach the gospel in beat form. Gives us the savoury prospect of Harlem being lured to heaven by the promise that it’s exactly like the sinful place they’ve just come from, only with added musicians. And that your soul can be saved, if you only listen to Cab Calloway. Fair enough on that last point, I suppose… but no mercy for the rest of this one. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Friz would *not* have been amused by the next one.
Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (Avery, 1937)
Now, this one’s actually not half bad. Tex Avery takes on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and turns out an interesting little number in which two kids (Louisa and Toppsy, I kid you not) save Uncle Tom (“my body may belong to you, but my soooooul belongs to Waaaaaarner Brothers…”) from the evil slave trader Simon-Simon Legree (who actually turns into a snake at one point). Aided by the bold-and-plucky washer-woman, the children are pursued by Legree when they default on the payments they’re supposed to making to keep Uncle Tom away from him, and the day is saved when Tom turns up done up to the nines and waving money about… which he’s won by gambling. This one’s actually funny, and the usual Avery joyousness pervades. It’s almost a shame this one’s not in circulation, despite it exhibiting all of the problems that the Freleng ones do in terms of visual depiction of characters.
Jungle Jitters (Freleng, 1938)
Friz makes it a hat trick, as a dopy Salesman attempts to sell his products to a settlement of cannibals. Life is further complicated when the (white) Queen of the settlement falls in love with him. This one’s not really offensive, as it’s so dimwitted and clueless as to be completely detached from reality. I mean, how the hell do you react to a gag which involves several natives travelling round and round a hut to the tune of “The Merry Go Round Broke Down”? Interesting that in all of the ‘toons so far, every white character has been either slimy, stupid or evil. Nice to see the old “hungry person sees human as a giant roast chicken” sight gag as well.
The Isle of Pingo Pongo (Avery, 1938)
Tex Avery again, this time tackling travelogue newsreels, as a cruise liner of rich white folks get to see what life is like on the titular island. And it’s just like life in New York, with a radio show, football games and “lunch at the Dark Brown Derby”. For some reason, Avery’s stuff is nowhere near as offensive to me as the Freleng ones in this list – possibly because he’s got a deeply sarcastic sense of humour which he puts to good use here with the scene in which a fat lady throws a coin into the sea “for the native divers” only for it to be swooped upon by her fellow passengers. All told, alright – if only because it’s an incredibly silly cartoon.
So, halfway through, and have I come to any conclusions? One phrase keeps ringing through my mind – Brian Trueman’s comment about being “innocent to the point of gormlessness”. There really doesn’t seem to be any evil intent in here – all the really stupid behaviour is conducted by the white folks, which is sort of better than what I feared on starting out to review these things. And so far, it’s all been Freleng and Avery who have fallen prey to the censor. All that’s about to change – Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett are about to enter the fray…
All This And Rabbit Stew (Avery, 1941)
The tall grey one makes an appearance in the banned list, as Bugs takes on his favourite role as the prey of a simple-minded hunter.
If this had been an Elmer Fudd cartoon, no-one would have batted an eyelid. Indeed, it *is* an Elmer Fudd cartoon, in that it features the classic “hunter runs into hollow log, Bugs pushes it round and out over the end of a cliff, hunter runs out the other end and over the cliff” gag. This particular piece of animation appears to have been re-used for the 1946 short, “The Big Snooze” – with Elmer drawn over the top of the original character.
The whole short is a ringer for those Bugs and Elmer two-handers (or three, if you include the astonishing “Hunter Trilogy”, in which Daffy turns up and lifts the whole thing onto another level of – yes – genius. Best cartoons ever made, those three – but that’s by the by).
Our stupid hunter here is outwitted constantly by Bugs, and finally Warners prove once again their belief that everyone south of the Mason-Dixie line is obsessed with Gambling as Bugs wins in a game of strip poker, waltzing off at the end in the hunter’s clothes. Pretty much standard Bugs fare, but the central faults are exactly the same as most of the other toons so far, Massuh.
Bugs would go on to commit much worse crimes against good taste in the little-seen-but-not-actually banned “Herr Meets Hare”, and (yes, you’re not imagining the following title) “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”.
John Kricfalusi (the creative force behind Ren and Stimpy, and a man with some strongly held ideas about animation) has a bit of an unhealthy fascination for Bob Clampett. Clampett was undeniably a prime mover in his time at Warners, but he left comparatively early (1946, I think), while most of the rest stayed on until the end, suffering never-ending budget cuts and increasing restrictions on what they could and couldn’t do. As a result, Clampett’s cartoons are almost with exception lush, gorgeous, beautifully animated… but so are everyone else’s from that particular timespan. It’d be interesting to see what he would have turned out if he’d stuck with the studio until the early 1960’s, when even Chuck Jones was reduced to producing rubbish like “Beep Prepared”.
Kricfalusi is all over the commentaries on the Golden Collection, bigging up the Clampett contribution while downplaying the likes of Jones, Robert McKimson and especially Friz Freleng. I’d love to know what he makes of the next two.
Tin Pan Alley-Cats (Bob Clampett, 1943)
Good grief. I can’t believe I just saw this. Cats in blackface, one half crazed with that sinful rhythm, the other half obsessed with dancing. One cat (who happens to look and sound like Fats Waller) is transported in ecstasy by the music to a strange land where his experiences persuade him to lead the good life – and he goes back down to earth and joins the mission that’s set up next door to the kit-kat club.
Lots of footage either reused or closely approximating stuff from “Porky in Wackyland” or “Dough For the Do-Do” here. If you’ve ever seen either of them, you’ll know that the screengrab I’ve posted isn’t even the half of it.
The blackface stuff is horrendous – but the whole cartoon is so bloody… strange… that it should probably have been banned to stop people’s heads exploding in a Cronenberg-esque manner. “Yellow Submarine” twenty-five years early, basically.
Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs (Bob Clampett, 1943)
Apparently one of the greats. Critical opinion sits squarely behind this one as an all-time classic. I’m sorry, I don’t see it. I don’t know why. I can admire the artistry, but it doesn’t grab me the way some of Clampett’s other stuff does. This one sits uncomfortably along with the previously mentioned Bugs subjects and the 1943 Batman serial from Columbia – some very nasty Japanese-bashing here. Some great hyuk-hyuk-hyuk type dwarfs (soldiers in the U.S army, and thus the good guys here) and a particularly ineffective Prince Charming for Snow White who has (here we go again) a pair of dice set into his teeth. His kiss fails to revive Snow White, who is eventually saved by one of the soldiers – how? “It’s a millitary secret”. And the whole thing is recited in what for want of a better word, we must call “jive”. Oh, yes.
Shortly after this, I subjected myself to more WWII cartoon strangeness the complete Private Snafu shorts. Now, there’s a weird thing. Produced for the US War effort by Warners, written by Theodore Geisler (aka Dr Seuss), animated by Jones, McKimson, Clampett, Avery et al. Some of them are spectacularly good. Another post, another day. Meanwhile…
Angel Puss (Chuck Jones, 1944)
Try as I might to go against the flow and claim that one of the other Warners directors is better, I actually can’t disagree with the general opinion these days that Chuck Jones was the finest creator ever employed at Termite Terrace. The work pretty much speaks for itself – this is the man who came up with the Hunter Trilogy, One Froggy Evening, What’s Opera, Doc?, Wile E. and Road Runner, Ralph Wolf, and *especially* Feed the Kitty … his work post-Warners can be pretty damn special as well – he gave us the definitive version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas for starters. He’s also responsible for The Dot and the Line, The Phantom Tollbooth… but he could also drop a spectacular bollock. He directed a lengthy run of Tom and Jerry cartoons which I utterly loathe – you’ll know ’em if you’ve seen ’em – they’re the ones with very limited animation, terrible plinky-plonky music and they have no charm whatsoever. He wasn’t the only one responsible for cocking it up after Hanna/Barbera left, but he must take *some* responsibility. This one falls in with the latter category, I’m afraid. It’s *terrible*.
A young boy, (name of “Sambo”) is sent to drown a cat, having already pocketed the money he was given to do the deed. The cat escapes, and pretends to haunt the boy until driven out of his wits, Sambo shoots the cat for real – and is then haunted by nine ghosts of the original cat (“and this time, brother – we ain’t foolin…”). At one point, Sambo is running full pelt away from the “ghost”, and is lured back in a somnabulistic state by the sound – you know what’s coming – of rattling dice. What *was* it with this fixation? This one’s far and away the worst of the Eleven. It’s not funny, it’s inept, it’s genuinely offensive. Even the greats have an off day once in a while.
Still, for once, at least there’s no “jive” music in this one. For that, we must return to Uncle Friz Freleng, who puts in his final appearance in the Censored 11 with…
Goldilocks and The Jivin’ Bears (Freleng, 1944)
Another one of those “what the hell have I just watched?” cartoons. The three bears are now three rhythm-smitten jazz musicians, living in a tumble-down shack in the forest. They’re so “hot” that their instruments start to overheat, so they go for a walk in the forest while they wait for them to cool down (“because that’s what it says in this here book” – the book being a book of fairy stories, of course).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the forest… the Big Bad Black Wolf receives a telegram from Red Ridin’ Hood – who can’t come to visit today because she’s tied up with her job at Lockheed as a “rivitator” (!) Wolf decides to kill two fairytales with one stone, and heads over to the bears cottage – just in time for Goldilocks (who looks suspiciously similar to Snow White) to come-a-callin’. At which point, the three bears turn up, and mistake the intruders for “Jitterbugs”. A dance marathon ensues, the Wolf flees in despair from Goldilocks who has turned predatorial herself as a result of the music – only to find when he gets back to Grannie’s cottage that Red Ridin’ Hood has decided to come visiting after all. Wolf refuses to chase her because of the state of his danced out feet, but he’s been followed back by the three bears, who continue the dance-off. At which point Granny frees herself from the cupboard she’s been locked in and gets in on the “jitterbug” craze herself…
I think I may have to go and have a little lie down after that one.
So that’s the Censored Eleven. 4 from Friz Freleng, 3 from Tex Avery, 2 from Bob Clampett, and one each from Harman/Ising and Chuck Jones.
All told, innocence prevails until we reach the wartime shorts – then a general feeling of unpleasantness comes to the fore through to “Coal Black…” which is most unlike the usual Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies feel. Post war, the final two lapse back into their state of cheerily unaware stereotyping.
There are other cartoons which escaped the banned list which are every bit as bad as the ones in here. Popeye suffers particularly badly during wartime, and there’s nothing in this selection – with the possible exception of “Angel Puss” – that comes close to the levels of offensiveness displayed by those. The Bugs shorts are probably the worst offenders, but there’s also a Clampett short from the early forties called “Africa Squeaks” which really must be seen to be believed, as Porky goes on an exploration of the interior only to run up against “Cake Icer” (Kay Kyser) who is on a mission of his own to bring swing to the godless natives. I also find it interesting that none of the regular Warners stable with the exception of Bugs are on here. No Porky, no Daffy… some were yet to be even created (Sylvester, Tweety, Wile E.) so they probably escape by default!
Still – I’ll be interested in the reaction to these eleven, should they ever manage to escape onto the release schedule. I suspect we’ll be waiting until the final couple of volumes, though, whatever form that Warners decide to continue their release schedule in. If they bung them all out in the last batch, chances are they’ll sit there without any worrying considerations of sales-dropping. We’ll see. One thing about these shorts though – in almost every case what you’re seeing is some of the finest creators in their field working at the absolute height of their powers. It may not sit comfortably with todays values, but there’s no denying the sheer creativity. Sometimes misdirected, but… whoof. They do deserve to be seen again. After all, we’re all grown up enough to make up our own minds. Aren’t we…?