There are three very important things to note about the original Looney Tunes. One: they were sometimes presented under the banner of “Merrie Melodies,” but there was no real difference between the two. Bugs Bunny cartoons, for instance, appeared under both banners. Two: they were originally released as short films that would be shown in movie theaters, often with an older audience in mind. And three: it was not until the 1950s that they began to air on television, and not until the 1960s until they entered widespread syndication. Therefore, the classic Looney Tunes cartoons have always been a little edgier than your standard television cartoon.
However, another sad fact about the original Looney Tunes is that they were produced at a time when racist humor was a lot more “acceptable.” Thus, when the cartoons entered into syndication, many of them had to be drastically altered. Eleven cartoons, though, were considered so racist that they couldn’t air period. The “Censored Eleven” continued to remain out of syndication when Ted Turner bought the rights to the Looney Tunes syndication. Two more World War II cartoons were added and eventually, so, too, were all the cartoons starring two popular (and very racist) Looney Tunes characters. Here, we will explain each of these cartoons to you so that you can learn why they’ll likely never air on TV again.
15. HITTIN’ THE TRAIL FOR HALLELUJAH LAND
In the early days of animation at both Disney and Warner Bros., there would be nearly no plots to their cartoons. It was just a fun novelty to hear music and see cartoon characters move. Then, over time, plots soon began to emerge. Soon, of course, we would get the complicated stories that we’re familiar with of early Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons.
At first, though, there were barely any plots at all. What people sometimes forget is that early cartoons were also heavily influenced by minstrel shows, with the original leads (including Mickey Mouse) very reminiscent of old timey song and dance acts, which often had, by today’s standards, hugely racist underpinnings, many of them visual in nature. In this very early Looney Tunes cartoon, Piggy is basically a knockoff of “Steamboat Willie,” but he helps an “Uncle Tom,” and that was the reason the episode was banned.
14. SUNDAY GO TO MEETIN’ TIME
In “Sunday Go To Meeting’ Time,” a young man named Nicodemus ignores the pleas of his mother to go to church on Sunday. He instead steals some chickens and goes to play dice. However, he hits his head and ends up in the “Hades Court of Justice,” where he is tortured by the devil and his demons.
In the end, Nicodemus wakes up and discovers what he thinks are the stabbings of pitchforks are actually the pecks of chickens! He quickly decides to go to Church and become a God-fearing man. While the plot of the story is straightforward and inoffensive, all of the characters in it are basically right out of a minstrel show. Even the demons have features that are racially charged, stereotypical or downright racist! It’s kind of crazy.
13. CLEAN PASTURES
In 1936, the film The Green Pastures was released. It told Biblical stories featuring an all African-American cast. It was mostly mocking the cast (“Look at the black people acting out Bible stories! How hilarious!”) but just by virtue of being a hit film featuring an all-African American cast, it was still a big deal at the time. It was the highest grossing film with an all-black cast for almost two decades!
“Clean Pastures” is a parody of the film, revealing that Heaven (in this story, dubbed “Pair O Dice,” you know, because black people can’t stop playing dice… ugh) is running low on souls. They try to recruit in Harlem, but have little luck until they start working rhythm into their pitch and soon they have souls dancing their way to heaven. Once again, everyone is right out of a minstrel show and is just grossly problematic.
12. UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW
This 1937 cartoon parodied the classic Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Simon Legree selling the kindly old man, Uncle Tom, to two little girls, a white girl named Little Eva and a black girl named Topsy. When they fall behind on their payments, he comes to their home to “repossess” Uncle Tom. They try to hide Uncle Tom and escape.
In the end, just when it seems like Legree and his hounds are about to corner them, Uncle Tom shows up, now very rich! He pays off the debt and it is a happy ending. Uncle Tom, of course, won the money by playing craps (as noted, according to these cartoons, all black people did was play dice and little else). This is another instance of the characters all being gross racist caricatures.
11. JUNGLE JITTERS
As the decades have passed, it is increasingly difficult to recognize all of the old pieces of popular culture that were the basis for older Looney Tunes cartoons. Due to their format, cartoons frequently made references to popular radio characters. One of these character was Al Pearce’s Elmer Burt, a nervous door to door salesman whose catchphrase was “Nobody home, I hope, I hope, I hope.”
In this cartoon, a salesman based on Burt goes to an African village where he ends up being cooked for dinner (it ends with him hoping that “they all get indigestion, I hope, I hope, I hope”). Besides the salesman character, all the characters were right out of a minstrel show. The only other exception was the village’s queen, as she was a love interest and we couldn’t risk having a black love interest for a white lead, even in a cartoon!
10. THE ISLE OF PINGO PONGO
In the early days of “Merrie Melodies,” the stories were designed to each be one-off tales. No one was coming back for more. That changed with the introduction of Egghead, a hunter who would serve as the general inspiration for the later (and more famous) character, Elmer Fudd. In “The Isle of Pingo Pongo,” Egghead’s fourth appearance, it was also the first time that they had done a cartoon parody of a travelogue, which soon became a very popular parody target (as you could tell lots of gags with the concept).
Here, Egghead travels to Pingo Pongo, where the animators naturally treat the natives there as if they were, in effect, animals. Of course, they also made sure to draw parallels between them and popular imagery of African-Americans of the era, because folks at the time just could not help being racist apparently. This is what led to it being censored years later.
9. ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW
As you might have noticed, none of these cartoons so far have featured any of the famous Looney Tunes characters like Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny. That streak ends with 1941’s “All This and Rabbit Stew,” a parody (only of the title) of the then-popular film, All This and Heaven Too, about a woman wrongly accused of killing her employer’s wife after she falls in love with her employer.
It features an offensive racist depiction of a young black hunter who takes the place of Elmer Fudd in getting tormented by Bugs Bunny while he tries to hunt Bugs. They tried out three alternate hunters to Elmer Fudd in 1941. Seeing Bugs Bunny mimic a black man and make fun of the way he speaks is very disturbing to watch.
8. COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS
You might have heard the phrase that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, in the case of “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” you pretty much can judge this cartoon just from the title card. Yes, it is, indeed, a parody of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, only with all of the characters portrayed by African-Americans. And yes, it is racist as all heck.
Interestingly enough, the director of the cartoon, Bob Clampett, specifically did the cartoon at the request of the great jazz musician, Duke Ellington, who asked Clampett to do a “black musical cartoon.” Clampett’s intentions were certainly good, but the end result was still quite racist. The film was so controversial that the NAACP protested its depiction of black people at the time. Can you imagine how racist something needs to be to get protested as being racist in 1943?
7. TIN PAN ALLEY CATS
As noted regarding “Coal Black,” Bob Clampett was doing these films as a tribute to the jazz musicians that he was friends with at the time. Clampett was a big fan of jazz and tried to get an all-black orchestra to do all of the music in “Coal Black” (but Warner Bros. wouldn’t let him), so Clampett’s intentions were good. However, the end result still was that he created some awfully racist cartoons.
It continued with his follow up to “Coal Black,” “Tin Pan Alley Cats,” where a cat based on famed Jazz musician Fats Waller gets caught up in the world of jazz clubs until he has a terrible dream (with cameos from Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and more) that leads to him deciding to join the church singing group the next day.
6. ANGEL PUSS
This is the first one of these entries to technically be dubbed Looney Tunes, though again, the term was interchangeable with “Merrie Melodies.” Do note that Bugs Bunny has already appeared on the list and obviously we all consider Bugs to be a Looney Tunes character. In any event, it deals with a young black child named Sambo (because of course he was), who is hired to drown a cat.
The cat sneaks out of the bag and fills it with bricks. He then disguises himself as a ghost and haunts Sambo for days until they accidentally end up in a pond together when his disguise comes off and an angry Sambo kills him. The cartoon then ends with his nine ghosts all haunting Sambo at once, saying”And this time, brother, us ain’t kiddin’!”
5. GOLDILOCKS AND THE JIVIN’ BEARS
Outside of a character that we’ll talk about later in the list, 1944’s “Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears” was the last all-black cast on a “Merrie Melodies” cartoon. It depicts the three bears as a jazz trio. The Big Bad Wolf is waiting for Little Red Riding Hood when he learns that she will not be arriving because she is working in a factory now (due to World War II).
So he heads into the “Goldilocks” story to eat her instead. In a rarity for these cartoons, while the Wolf and the Bears are all in a blackface style, Goldilocks herself is actually drawn as a normal, attractive African-American young woman. It’s a very odd juxtaposition to see. The three bears save Goldilocks’ life by playing a Jitterbug, forcing the wolf and Goldilocks to dance until he passes out from exhaustion. This is the last of the infamous “Censored Eleven.”
4. TOKIO JOKIO
Soon, two cartoons from World War II would join the “Censored Eleven” as being banned from syndication packages. The first of the two was “Tokio Jokio,” which was released in 1943. The concept behind the short film is that this is a allegedly a “captured” Japanese training video (in the beginning of the film, a rooster reveals itself to be a Japanese vulture).
The whole video mocks the Japanese as incompetent, as they do a number of stupid things throughout the film. Now, the United States was at war with Japan at the time, so certain cultural animosities at the time have to be understood when watching or discussing this one — not condoned, but understood. Even with that in mind, though, the depictions of the Japanese in the film were overly cruel, especially how every Japanese man had buck teeth and thick glasses.
3. BUGS BUNNY GETS RACIST
Again, it is important to note just how acceptable these racist depictions of Japanese people were at the time. For instance, here is a write-up of this cartoon from 1944, when it was first released: “Bugs Bunny, castaway on a Pacific isle, thinks the setting is ideal until he finds his paradise infested with Japanese soldiers. How he single-handedly exterminates the enemy makes for a laugh-filled few minutes of typical Bugs antics, off-screen remarks and action in this Technicolor cartoon produced by Leon Schlesinger.”
At the time, the racism of the cartoon was overlooked. Now, it is painful to watch, especially seeing Bugs Bunny not only take out racial caricatures of Japanese people, but calling them “monkey face” and “slant eyes” while he is doing it.
2. ALL BOSKO CARTOONS
While “Merrie Melodies” did not have recurring characters at first, that was not the case with Looney Tunes. As soon as they started, they were doing recurring characters. One of their first was Bosko, who had actually debuted in a pilot film created in 1929 to sell the character to studios. Warner Bros. bought it and soon, Bosko was the first leading man of Looney Tunes.
Bosko, of course, was depicted as a minstrel. One thing worth noting is that most of the early Bosko cartoons at least did not actively make fun of his ethnicity like most cartoons starring black characters did. One notable exception was 1930’s “Congo Jazz,” where Bosko goes to African and discovers that the apes and monkeys there all look just like him. That’s just so sad.
1. ALL INKI CARTOONS
While not a defense of them, it is at least worth noting that Bosko’s final film was in 1938 and, as noted before, 1944’s “Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears” was the final film of that particular style to appear at Warner Bros. So, in a lot of ways, they seemed like they were trying to clean their act up and respond to the criticisms that they were receiving from the civil rights groups of the era…. but then there was Inki.
Inki was an African boy who would go out hunting in his films while not realizing that he was always in danger of being hunted by his own prey. These cartoons continued until 1950! There was never a good time to make minstrel show cartoons, but to continue it into the 1950s is shocking.
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