I had thought about this blog post for a while, and I wasn’t really sure how to approach it.
In fact, I shelved this blog for a while.
Until I heard that HBO Max was bringing back the Warner Bros. cartoon characters in a new iteration of Looney Tunes cartoons.
See, in bringing back the classic cartoon characters, they’ve decided that some adjustments must be made. To wit, Elmer Fudd may no longer use a rifle to hunt Bugs Bunny. And Yosemite Sam’s guns have been taken away as well. Oh lord, people are losing their minds on this. “You’re changing history,” they cry. “You’re being politically correct, you snowflakes.”
Oh yeah? I’m thinking instead that HBO knows that there’s a deeper, darker, nastier history of these cartoons. There are several of these clips that must NEVER see the light of day. We’re talking cartoons with inherent racism and insensitivity.
For example, here are those vintage Warner Bros. shorts that, for one reason or another, have stayed out of distribution and syndication packages. They don’t appear on official Warner Bros. boxed sets. Officially, they’re locked in the vault. In some cases, the copyrights on these films have lapsed, which puts these movies into the public domain – where they end up on dollar-cost DVD sets that are sold in dollar stores.
In many cases, they were created by Warner Bros’ top directors and animators, and contain some of the most surreal artwork and storytelling in the Warner Bros. canon.
But they also contain horrifying stereotypes and demeaning racial humor.
Warner Bros. was not the only cartoon studio whose cartoons had content that would be highly upsetting if seen today. Many of the original Tom and Jerry shorts from MGM’s cartoon studios contained a black maid nicknamed “Mammy Two Shoes,” whose voice sounded distressingly similar to a black maid in radio comedies, “Beulah.” Later, those cartoons were edited for television broadcasts to remove Mammy Two Shoes and replace her with a nondescript white woman.
At the same time, the UPA cartoon studio had two different cartoon series of shorts – a televised run of Mr. Magoo and a comic take on Dick Tracy – both of which featured horrifyingly brutal Chinese imitations, with those characters speaking in honorable Engrish. Ugh. Eventually the Mr. Magoo cartoons were re-dubbed so that his Chinese house-servant Charlie had a new, generic voice; while the Dick Tracy cartoons – some of which featured a Japanese buck-toothed character named Joe Jitsu – came and went without much afterthought.
Even Paramount Studios – the distributor of the Fleischer Studios cartoons of Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop and Superman – have some cartoons that would never pass muster today. Of the seventeen Superman shorts produced by the Fleischer Studios during the heart of World War II, the short “Japoteurs” – where Superman tries to stop, well, you can figure it out from the title – is just painful to watch. And don’t get me started on how many Betty Boop cartoons show more than a quick frame or three of an accidental glimpse of Betty’s boop-boop-a-doop.
But back to the Warner Bros. cartoons. Trust me, these have aged horribly.
HITTIN’ THE TRAIL FOR HALLELUJAH LAND
This is the earliest one of the Censored Eleven films, released in 1931 by Warner Bros’ directing team at the time, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. As you can see, this cartoon is full of Stepin Fetchit references, and we certainly can do without the appearance of the “Uncle Tom” character with a voice that came from either Amos or Andy. Besides the appalling racial characters in this film, it borrows so much from two Walt Disney films, The Skeleton Dance and Steamboat Willie, I’m surprised Ub Iwerks didn’t get a writing credit on this picture.
SUNDAY GO TO MEETIN’ TIME
The early “Merrie Melodies” films in the Warner Bros. catalog often took popular songs from Warner Bros. films and animated them into new 7-minute cartoon shorts with their own plotlines and stories. Here’s one example, and even if I just heard the audio and not watched the cartoon itself, I might let it go as a halfway decent 1930’s jazz song. But not with the distasteful black stereotypes that are seen here. This is just awful.
Yikes. This 1943 Looney Tunes short purports to be a Japanese newsreel. And I get that in 1943, we were at war with Japan and Germany and Italy – but the blatant propaganda and horrifyingly gutless Asian stereotypes makes this clip almost impossible to watch.
BUGS BUNNY NIPS THE NIPS
Something to understand here. Bugs Bunny does all his usual gimmicks in this cartoon. He does. Dress in drag, drive his opposition screwy … and all his barefoot, buck-teethed gibberish-speaking foes “Monkey Face” and “Slant Eyes” – ugh. No. Not worth the trouble.
COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS
The big problem with this cartoon – among the many, many problems it has – is that people will argue that this film is one of director Bob Clampett’s most important works. No. Bob Clampett’s most important works involve Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny and, later, Beany and Cecil. But the cartoon in itself is seven straight minutes of bigotry and racism and the worst kind of humor. No. Just no.
ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW
Yikes. You’re worried about Elmer Fudd with a gun, how about this stereotype that hunted Bugs Bunny for a single animated episode? Yeesh. This is grotesque.
Now you need to understand, there are TWO versions of this cartoon. First, here’s the version you might remember, in which a Russian wolfhound chases Bugs Bunny.
Okay. At the end, Bugs tucks his body up into the sandwich bread so that when the dog bites the sandwich, he’s biting AROUND Bugs. And Bugs later hands the dog a gun, so that the dog can shoot himself in the head.
Now here’s the original version, in which … well … see if you can spot the difference.
Yeah. Bugs Bunny commits straight up murder. Yeah, this is TOTALLY appropriate for family viewing, right?
CAT-TAILS FOR TWO
So this Warner Bros. short is a two-fer. You get the first appearance by Speedy Gonzales, in such a gutteral stereotype that even Donald Trump would find it offensive; and you get Benny and George, two cats that are supposed to represent the John Steinbeck characters from Of Mice and Men until you realize that Benny is making fun of the mentally handicapped. Way to knock it out of the offensiveness stadium, Warner Bros.
Look, I get it. Racism has been used as cheap humor for ages. That doesn’t make it right or acceptable today. The fact that these cartoons aren’t being shown in Warner Bros. syndication packages or on Cartoon Network or anywhere else, shows that Warner Bros. understands there’s a big problem with them. If you’re a film historian and you want to understand the works of some of these artists, then there are film libraries and fringe areas of the Internet where you can find these shorts. But they don’t need to be aired in the usual children’s syndication packages. Not any more.
And if you’re kvetching about Elmer Fudd not carrying a gun, or Yosemite Sam not carrying a gun, instead of more important issues like why there’s gun violence in this world today… your priorities are seriously messed up, bro.