Yes, to a degree. All of those Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry antics kids fondly remember from ’70s Saturday morning TV were intended for ’30s and ’40s movie-going adults, and the cartoons reflected and parodied those eras’ pop culture the way “The Simpsons” does ours. In an era when Amos and Andy and Jack Benny and Rochester ruled the radio, and Judy Garland could dress like Topsy from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the feature film “Everybody Sing,” stereotyped characters and gags were inevitable in cartoons.
Travelogue parodies and anything else set in “darkest Africa” were guaranteed to have cannibal natives speaking with an American black “accent.” Almost every attempt to play with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” turned out predictably horrible: 1932’s “Uncle Tom and Little Eva” features happy slaves singing on the way to auction, yet it’s still more entertaining than watching Mighty Mouse come to save the day in 1944’s long-banned “Eliza on Ice,” which drowns in stereotypes while also being dull.
“Mammy” stereotypes sometimes popped up as maids for main characters like Little Audrey, although the best-known one today is Tom and Jerry’s nemesis Mammy Two-Shoes, whose head is never seen but who could be heard yelling, “Thomas, is dat you?” off and on until the 1990s, when her TV voice was permanently redubbed. (Tom himself frequently ended up in blackface after an explosion; these gags were later edited out for TV.)
Perhaps the worst stereotype was that of the Stepin Fetchit. He was a gifted comic actor who, of course, didn’t work in cartoons. But Fetchit‘s persona did — and, as ‘toons always do, they stretched his caricature to the limit. In “All This and Rabbit Stew,” Bugs Bunny goes up against a cringingly slow-witted black hunter with a weakness for dice. What’s troubling is that Bugs himself is in high form here. Had director Tex Avery opted for Elmer Fudd as foil, it would be a classic, but instead we have this:
Many jazz-themed cartoons are now recognized as classics even though they’ve never been officially rereleased because of the stereotypes. “Clean Pastures” first set the standard in 1937 as the bar Pair o’ Dice competes with the Savoy and Kotton Club (owned by Hades, Inc.) for the souls of urbane Harlem Renaissance blacks. When the old preaching ways fail, St. Peter has to modernize by using “rhythm” — Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway act as angels. MGM’s riotous “Swing Wedding,” also from 1937, featured caricatures of every current jazz great plus a bizarre scene of a trumpet valve being used as a syringe.
But the most complicated viewing comes from 1943’s “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” an incredibly racy Disney spoof (note the image of character So White above) that’s packed with nonstop surreal wartime gags and a jubilant hot-jazz soundtrack. Yet it’s regarded by animation historians as one of the best cartoons the Warner studio ever put out.
“[Director Bob] Clampett wasn’t denigrating black culture; he was celebrating the music of the entertainers he saw in jazz nightclubs,” says ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive director Steve Worth. “He lobbied Warner Bros. to hire a black jazz band to perform the music.” (Clampett failed at this, but did land Dorothy Dandridge‘s sister Vivian for So White’s vocals and their mother, Ruby Dandridge, for the evil Queenie.)
“I’m always surprised when [modern] cartoonists fail to recognize the difference between racial stereotyping and cartoony caricature,” notes Worth. “Caricature is at the root of all cartooning, and without exaggeration there isn’t much reason for cartooning to exist.”
Intent does seem an important consideration: It wouldn’t seem fair to put Bill Cosby‘s reality-based Fat Albert kids, for example, on the same level as those old Uncle Tom characters.
Most cartoon studios stopped making “race cartoons” around 1948, although isolated (and usually editable) blackface and minstrel gags continued until the early ’50s. Mammy Two-Shoes made her last traditional appearance in 1952, and two years later, the cultural shift that accompanied Brown v. Board of Education meant all the other stereotyped images would join her.
So after 60 years is it finally safe for some of these to officially come out of the vault, even if it’s only, as Goldberg says, to keep from denying history? Disney, after all, still considers “Song of the South” unsuitable for all ages. Worth points out the irony of not releasing “Coal Black” to TV or home video because of its black theme while “Gone With the Wind” and other films “with much less sympathetic portrayals of black characters play on television regularly and are recognized as masterpieces of moviemaking.”
“Why is that?,” Worth says. “It’s because cartoons are wrongly identified as ‘children’s entertainment.'”
Written by Express contributor Paul Stelter
Screen grabs courtesy of ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive