I’ve always been interested in the topic of film censorship. We all know that what was once considered acceptable on film, such as Caucasian actors playing Asian characters, is now considered politically incorrect. To a modern audience, many people wonder why white actors always played Charlie Chan or why Boris Karloff had makeup applied to turn him into Mr. Wong. It is something we’d never consider today as we have become more racially sensitive and have evolved as a society. However, I strongly oppose censoring such films because it is a part of our past and film history. We cannot simply ignore it. Instead, we should view these and be prepared to educate those who question why we once did what we did.
Cartoons were no exception to racially insensitive images. While there are quite a few cartoons withheld from circulation today, the most well-known (but not the worst) are known as the Censored Eleven. These eleven cartoons from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were pulled out of television syndication in 1968 after United Artists purchased the distribution rights to the Warner Brothers library. They all have depictions of black people that are considered too offensive by today’s standards. The ban continues to this day, even after Warner Brothers reclaimed the rights in 1996.
Many of the cartoons I watched growing up in the 1970s are no longer seen. Not because of racism but because of other topics such as smoking, violent acts and suicide. It does seem that we’ve gone too far until you consider that, while many children are exposed to much more than we ever were, certain acts just come across as wrong in older cartoons. However, are the Censored Eleven really that bad? Once, these were virtually impossible to find with a few exceptions. Now, through the wonder of the internet and sites such as YouTube, they are all available in varying degrees of quality. New generations can decide for themselves just how bad they are. Recently, I finally sat down to watch all eleven.
Below is a list of the Censored Eleven:
Hittin’ The Trail for Hallelujah Land (1931)
Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time (1936)
Clean Pastures (1937)
Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937)
Jungle Jitters (1938)
The Isle of Pingo Pongo (1938)
All This and Rabbit Stew (1941)
Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs (1943)
Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943)
Angel Puss (1944)
Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944)
All of the cartoons have similar themes and images. Some characters are portrayed as slow, dim-witted, lazy and prone to drink and gambling. Jive music is a common background device while dice continue to pop up time and again. References to terms such as “sambo” or “boy” were heard a few times. We also had images of mammies, which most children today would be clueless to its’ origins. A couple of the cartoons clearly stood out. Uncle Tom’s Bungalow had slavery as a main storyline while Jungle Jitters had the usual cannibal/jungle native stereotype with one odd exception: one of the natives speaks in an Asian accent (the humor admittedly went over my head). The hardest to watch is All This and Rabbit Stew, starring Bugs Bunny. This cartoon is actually one of three in the public domain, so it pops up on cheap DVDs from time to time. The hunter, substituting for Elmer Fudd, is really offensive and quite painful to watch, even keeping it in historical context. However, one thing to consider is that the cartoons were not considered offensive at the time of their release and many of them were quite popular.
In recent years, there has been a lot of attention given to these cartoons along with many others, including wartime cartoons featuring offensive images of Japanese people. Cartoons with offensive Native American images have also been pulled from circulation. The general perception amongst cinematic historians is that they should not be censored but available as educational tools to a part of our American history. Not all of our past is glorious but rewriting history to make it more acceptable only leads to the dangers of repeating it. Allowing the films to be seen with disclaimers opens the doorway to discussion and education. I challenge anyone to argue that point.
Eight of the eleven were recently screened by Turner Classic Movies and it does appear that Warner Brothers plans on releasing restored prints of all eleven sometime in the near future. Until then, ten are readily available on YouTube through various sources while Uncle Tom’s Bungalow can be found on eBaum’s World.