Since many people took notice of my recent piece about Ralph Bakshi's animated film Coonskin (read HERE) it prompted me to say at least a few (or a couple dozen) words about the infamous Warner Bros “Censored 11”.
And just what precisely are the Warner Bros Censored 11? They are 11 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons made during the Golden Era of Warner Bros’ cartoons, from the early 30's to the mid 40's and have been deemed so racially offensive and insensitive, that they were pulled from distribution for fear of creating major controversy.
But, as they always say, you just can’t keep a good controversy down. And, as always, some background is required.
Back around 1969, United Artists, when it was in existence as a vibrant and important major film company, made a deal with Warner Bros to buy their entire library of films and cartoons from 1928 to 1949, for what was then a staggering sum of $20 million dollars.
Now that may sound pretty paltry now, but back then it was considered a pretty sweet deal. Older films weren't then considered very valuable. The thinking was that the public wasn’t interested in them. But the joke was on Warners, and UA got their hands on a gold mine which included many WB gems, including Casablanca, King’s Row, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce and the list of classics goes on and on.
UA definitely got the better part of the deal, and their investment made the company untold millions in TV syndication and theatrical showings and rental deals.
But what I’m getting to is this: UA, after they bought the WB library, started to take a look at what they had and, to their horror, were all these WB cartoon shorts loaded with all sorts of ugly racial stereotyping.
Now granted, a lot of cartoons made by studios back then had more than their fair share of racially offensive stuff. In fact it was par for the course. Take a look at some of those older MGM, Disney or Universal cartoons, and you’ll see that Warners wasn’t the only sinner.
One particular grating example is Universal’s Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat, made by Walter Lang, the same guy who created Woody Woodpecker. It’s a stunner. Take a look HERE.
And so Warners was no exception. But in the cartoon catalog there were 11 shorts that UA thought were so beyond the pale that they pulled them from distribution altogether and pretended that they never even existed.
Later, when Ted Turner acquired the Warner library from MGM/UA in 1986, he swore that the Censored 11 would stay just that – censored – and would never see the light of day.
He went even further, cutting out any racial stereotyped jokes or images in any other Warners or MGM cartoons, aside from the Censored 11, which were deemed offensive.
The Censored 11 were:
1) Hitting the Trail for Hallelujah Land (Dir. Rudolf Ising, 1931); 2) Sunday Go to Meetin’Time (Dir. Friz Freleng, 1936); 3) Clean Pastures (Dir. Friz Freleng, 1937) ; 4) Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (Dir. Tex Avery, 1937) ; 5) The Isle of Lingo Pongo (Dir. Tex Avery, 1938); 6) Jungle Jitters (Dir. Friz Freleng, 1938); 7) All This and rabbit Stew (Dir. Tex Avery, 1941); 8) Tin Pan Alley Cat (Dir. Robert Clampett, 1943) ; 9) Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (Dir. Robert Clampett, 1943) ; 10) Goldilocks and the Jivin’Bears (Dir. Friz Freleng, 1944); 11) Angel Puss (Dir. Chuck Jones, 1944)
But as I've mentioned before – why these 11 and not others?
One can argue that there are other WB cartoons that might have been worthy of "censorship" such as the series of “Inki” cartoons all directed by Chuck Jones.
Those cartoons, which always involved the same premise of a little African pigmy after a strange self-processed myna bird, who seems to slip in and out of some fourth dimension, to the oddly syncopated strains of Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, are particularly non-PC.
Then there are all those offensive World War II cartoons mocking the Japanese, such as Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. But then again, we were at war with the Japanese and no one makes nice with the enemy during wartime.
There are so many other WB cartoons with black stereotypes sprinkled in here and there that it would take a lifetime to cut them all out. But why would anyone want to? There's no point hiding your head in the sand pretending that things did not exist as they did. People should face up to the reality of the attitudes and beliefs of the period, and should examine and discuss them.
Besides, as I always like to say, how do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been? Also one could argue, how different are those images compared to anything you see today, for example, in any reality show?
The cartoons are, themselves, pretty much the same to varying degrees, repeating the same exaggerated minstrel images, but Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is something special.
The stereotyped caricatures practically defy description to an extreme Salvador Dali-like surrealistic degree, and the blinding speed of the pacing is mesmerizing. The cartoons reflect the technique and style of Robert Clampett who was Warner cartoons’most energetic and anarchistic director.
But his portrayal of black people nearly approaches the level of being sub-human. And the over sexualization of So White (though the cartoon is titled Coal Black, perhaps a last minute title change) is pretty obvious and pretty much in your face. Add to that the relentless jazzy boogie-woogie jazz score and you have a cartoon that is truly unique. It is exactly these types of images that Bakshi himself was commenting on and subverting in his film Coonskin. However whether you'll enjoy watching Coal Black is another matter.
But you can take a look below and see for yourself (NOTE: Some of visual jokes will "fly over your head" since they refer to the rationing of materials like rubber, tin, tires, food and dairy products that the American public went through and the subsequent hoarding of those items by others during WW II).
I still vividly recall the first time I saw Coal Black. It was the last cartoon of a screening of 1940’s cartoons I attended back doing the mid-80's. I had heard about the cartoon, but had never seen it before. I recall the audience’s shocked look on their faces…including mine. It was like: “Did someone get the license plate off the truck that just ran us over???”
But censored doesn’t mean unseen, and since they were "banned,” these cartoons have been real collectors’items, and were bootlegged on video. You can even watch all of them online on YouTube and other sources.
In fact Warners has even had a change of heart, realizing that there is huge interest and demand for remastered versions of these cartoons, and the studio actually screened 8 of the 11 in newly restored versions in Los Angeles, at the annual TCM Film Festival in 2010.
It fact, last year it was announced that all the 11 cartoons had been completely restored, and the studio plans to release them in a special exclusive DVD multi-disc set, along with other controversial cartoons. Though a release date hasn’t been announced as yet, it’s expected sometime this year.
You can’t run away from past, but you can come to terms with it. But you can see for yourself why and what all the fuss was about below.
Here’s one of the Inki cartoons which is not one the Censored 11, but should it have been?
Censored cartoon Angel Puss
The one and only Coal Black