If you squint your eyes long and hard enough, any fictional character on any animated cartoon begins to develop its own offensive, socially improper qualities. Even the dynamics inherent to seemingly innocent cartoon settings and situations can appear sinister when scrutinized by qualified armchair cynics.
Belgian cartoonist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford’s Smurfs, for instance, copyright 1958. Two hundred tiny blue males harmonizing amongst themselves in a woodsy, European hamlet polka-dotted with mushroomy phallus cupcakes. The setup alone might be sufficient enough cause for concern – but the fact that there’s only one female to pass around? That can’t be right. Never mind the fact that Peyo also wrote and drew a short-lived comic called “Poussy”.
And hey now, what about Inspector Gadget’s bulbous, nodular profile? Doesn’t that lead some people to believe he’s ten times the Jew SpongeBob’s Squidward Tentacles ever was? Even though we all know in our heart of hearts that Mr. Krabs is in fact Bikini Bottom’s primary penny pincher?
Between 1928 and 1950, America’s premiere animators across the Walt Disney Corporation, Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes and R.K.O. Radio Pictures painstakingly assembled brilliant and offensive animated vignettes requiring no undue stretchery of the imagination. Hundreds of reels, thousands of cartoons, millions of individual frames sketched and watercolored by hand – and more often than people care to admit, content which directly ridiculed the behavior and appearance of blacks, homosexuals, southerners, the mentally ill, Arabs, Candians, Eskimos, Italians, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Germans, Russians, Australians, Indians, the Scottish, the French, the Irish – and yes, even Martians.
This was the golden age of animation, after all. Illustrators and comedy engineers were only too delighted to inject healthy doses of social tension into the public meme. Colorful, extended virtuoso sequences were married to Carl Stalling’s sprawling, frenetic musical score and Mel Blanc’s hyper-enthusiastic vocal characterizations. Together, this massive ensemble yielded some of the most respected entertainment products our planet has ever produced. The sheer output, the quantity alone staggers the imagination. These were people working in an exploding new field, individuals genuinely married to their work.
In the early days, cartoons were screened before feature films at fancy schmancy “moving picture” theaters – often social engagements where men and women were inspired to wear their Sunday best. Later, these same cartoons would cycle endlessly for decades on broadcast TV or cable syndication courtesy of modern inventions like the tel-o-vision.
And later still – after the innovation of the video cassette recorder – these priceless artifacts would be made available for home rental, so future generations (and their children, and their children’s children) could bear witness to each and every blessed key frame.
Actually, no. Sorry. As the result of objections by parents, overly sensitive sponsors, timid corporate policy, and “changing” cultural niceties, a substantial portion of these classic cartoons has been lost forever, and some may never again see the light of day.
Animated features with even the slightest reference to alcohol (including rum cake), adultery, breasts, chewing tobacco, cross-dressing, gambling, marijuana, pornography, profanity, “rim jobs” (i.e. dogs licking each other), vaguely sexual or flirtatious situations, recreational sex toys (i.e. Tom from Tom and Jerry sticks a vacuum cleaner up Mammy Two-Shoes’ skirt, producing giggles), smoking of any kind, suicides (i.e. a flusterated Daffy Duck blows his beak around in circles with a shotgun) – and even baby ducklings emerging from their shells in demure strip tease were deemed unacceptable. What’s left to laugh at? Dora the Explorer? Rotten Dot Com is confident it speaks for all of us when we say screw that edumacational bullshit.
Chow Hound (1951) directed by Charles M. Jones was a real classic – the story of a muscular dog who exploits a cat and mouse, concluding with a vicious turn of the tables: the dog is planted belly-up on a countertop and force-fed gallons of gravy (“…And don’t forget the gravy!”) through a garden hose. Well, consider those childhood memories stricken from the record. These days it falls under the category of imitatable behavior, i.e. too masochistic for children and families with pets.
Merrie Melodies chose to portray Australia as a desolate, sparsely-treed landscape populated by bouncing kangaroos and portly aborigines who communicate with one another by chucking boomerangs or screaming UNGA BUNGA BUNGA. That’s what critics had the good sense to label an unflattering portrayal, and it too was yanked from public shelves.
Today, the most popular racial phobery (and war-inspired propaganda) has a new impetus: South Park, with its remarkable and timely depictions of both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Swiping cultural cues from featurettes pioneered by Disney and Warner Bros., South Park manages to massage attitudes and manipulate the American agenda by unleashing brilliant leaflet campaigns of its own design.
Osama is illustrated wearing “farty pants,” mincing and prancing about the stage like a young gazelle. Saddam is portrayed as- well, quite frankly a goddamn little faggot who refuses to keep his pants on. His voice is squeaky and ridiculous. His head flaps up and down like Canada’s own Terence and Phillip. In South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Mr. Hussein is observed wigglin
g an oversized jelly dong in Satan’s face.
Hey Fred – how about a Winston break? Winston’s the one filtered cigarette that delivers flavor twenty times a pack. Filtered blend makes the big taste difference – and only Winston has it!
Yeah, Barn – up front where it counts, in front of the pure white filter. Winston packs rich tobaccos specially selected and specially processed for good flavor and filtered smoking. Winston tastes good… like a cigarette should!
See, every June is June Bugs month at Cartoon Network, and it’s a veritable Bugs Bunny marathon. Fearful of a potential backlash, AOL Time-Warner very nearly dropped a major anvil on Cartoon Network’s proposed festival in 2001. Racially charged episodes were aired out of order, late at night with the following disclaimer:
Historical value? Rock on. Which is Witch features Bugs Bunny in a classic Looney Tunes sequence of spear-chuckling, junglebunny slapstick. Broad-lipped, chocolate skinned natives populate a cannibalistic aborigine island of pure whimsy – and it would seem the young master Bugs is keen to participate! His first priority: blend in, through the ingenious use of a tightly coiled spring and tasteful table settings.
“Japs!” screeches Bugs. “Hundreds of them!
When Spike Lee made Bamboozled (a film dealing extensively with black stereotypes in Hollywood) Warner Bros. denied his request to include images of Bugs in blackface. But whether it’s Bugs Bunny tackling key issues of racism, or Popeye the Sailor Man binging on spinach while muttering to himself a private chorus of “you’re a sap / sap / sap / mister Jap,” or even
P-p-P-pork P-p-P-p-Porky P-p–
Okay, never mind. But if you think words like banned or censored imply a degree of government intrusion which feels just a wee bit exaggeratory, consider this. In 1942, when the U.S. Treasury Department ran a whisper shy of funds during the war effort, they wisely sought financial counsel from the Looney Tunes division of Merrie Melodies. In theaters from coast to coast, Bugs Bunny showed up once again in full Al Jolson blackface, performing a musical number meant to peddle stamps and U.S. Savings bonds.
The Swastika-dotted landscape of Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942) was the perfect brass band musical vehicle for Donald Duck, a Nazi munitions worker who “alternates between screwing nose cones onto bombs and saluting framed portraits of Adolf Hitler”. The Japanese make a cameo appearance too – and wouldn’t you know it, they’ve got lime green skin, big bulbous eyeglasses, Tupperware haircuts and protruding, jaggedy-ass dentures rivaling those of Bugs Bunny.
The title song, performed by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, won an honest-to-gosh Oscar for Best Short, beating out veteran animator Leon Schlesinger’s wheezing, preachy and pedantic Pigs in a Polka. Other big winners that year: honkabilly big mouth James Cagney for Best Actor in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Irving Berlin, who penned the music and libretto for White Christmas.
Donald T. Duck would later redeem himself as an air ranger in Commando Duck, a deftly animated farce combining traditional Disney magic with anti-Japanese tomfoolery. The premise: he parachutes into enemy territory during World War II. It’s treacherous terrain, marked by snipers hiding inside myopic, bucktoothed tree trunks which speak in pigeon-toed English, alternately bowing respectfurry toward one another and offering endress aporogies.
Donald’s mission: contact the enemy, surround them single-handedly, and wash them out. After a series of slaphappy bumbling mishaps, he manages to direct an avalanche of tumbling boulders down a gushing waterfall toward a Japanese military facility. The airfield is flooded. Hundreds of Nipponese soldiers drown, and dozens of red-spotted planes hang like limp turkeys from dead, drooping trees. Sad, squawky trumpets wup-wahh across the horizon. But not in a hate crimey kinda way! This comical vignette, for all intents and purposes, eagerly delivers the very quintessence of merriment.
German adults are portrayed in classic Disney “sinister bulldog” style: barrel chest, small rear end, bowed legs, and no neck. The bellowing, red-faced instructor’s jowls flop around like coattails as he berates a kindergarten classroom full of Bambi-eyed waifs in lederhosen, whose pluckish heads are delightfully oversized. The military professor’s singular goal: get these scatterbrained kids to appreciate Hitler’s way of thinking.
As Education For Death descends toward its bloody climax, the animation is bathed in murky red tones. The viewer is urged to “listen closely to the fanatic cry” of the German people. What follows is a pounding orchestral soundtrack and a relentless montage punctuating all things fire and brimstone.
Delicate, stained glass church windows are smashed out during drunken antisemetic protests – and endless squadrons of squat, pear-shaped children in silhouette are seen goosestepping in grids for miles across the globe, arms outstretched toward the sky as they Heil Hitler over and over. Today Germany – tomorrow the world!
Nine times out of ten, a person won’t even notice racist or hateful overtones in a cartoon unless the idea is planted firmly in head. By refusing to unearth and revive historical artifacts, societies sustain immeasurably more damage than brief exposure to racial toxins from old-timey cartoon doodles. Novelist Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century, 1999) muses, “If we don’t know our history in all of its complicated detail, how are we supposed to understand the present?”
To allow ourselves only a bland, repackaged version of the past is – how do you say – kind of a Mickey Mouse approach.
“Marching and heiling, heiling and marching. In him is planted no seed of laughter, hope, tolerance or mercy. For him – only heiling and marching, marching and heiling. The grim years of regimentation have done their work. Now he’s a good Nazi. He sees no more than the party wants him to. He says nothing but what the party wants him to say. And he does nothing than what the party wants him to do. And so he marches, with millions of comrades, trampling on the rights of others. For now, his education is complete. His education..
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