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The Colored Cartoon

The Colored Cartoon: Black Presentation in American Animated Short Films, 19071954

Christopher P. Lehman
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 152
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  • Book Info
    The Colored Cartoon
    Book Description:

    From the introduction of animated film in the early 1900s to the 1950s, ethnic humor was a staple of Americanmade cartoons. Yet as Christopher Lehman shows in this revealing study, the depiction of African Americans in particular became so inextricably linked to the cartoon medium as to influence its evolution through those five decades. He argues that what is in many ways most distinctive about American animation reflects white animators' visual interpretations of African American cultural expression. The first American animators drew on popular black representations, many of which were caricatures rooted in the culture of southern slavery. During the 1920s, the advent of the soundsynchronized cartoon inspired animators to blend antebellumera black stereotypes with the modern black cultural expressions of jazz musicians and Hollywood actors. When the film industry set out to desexualize movies through the imposition of the Hays Code in the early 1930s, it regulated the portrayal of African Americans largely by segregating black characters from others, especially white females. At the same time, animators found new ways to exploit the popularity of African American culture by creating animal characters like Bugs Bunny who exhibited characteristics associated with African Americans without being identifiably black. By the 1950s, protests from civil rights activists and the growing popularity of white cartoon characters led animators away from much of the black representation on which they had built the medium. Even so, animated films today continue to portray African American characters and culture, and not necessarily in a favorable light. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including interviews with former animators, archived scripts for cartoons, and the films themselves, Lehman illustrates the intimate and unmistakable connection between African Americans and animation.Choice

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-119-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Blackness of Animation
    (pp. 1-4)

    American animation owes its existence to African Americans. This is not to suggest that African Americans were involved in the technological development of animated film or even that they played an active role in the creation of the first cinematic cartoons. The connection between African Americans and animation was more subtle and indirect than that but nonetheless intimate and unmistakable. Early cartoons are replete with African American characters and caricatures, and such images soon became a staple of this new cultural medium. One of the first cartoons ever made in the United States, James Stuart Blackton’sLightning Sketches(1907), featured...

  6. ONE The Silent Era
    (pp. 5-14)

    During the first two decades of American animation (1907–27), the medium evolved from a vaudeville act to a film genre noticed by respected critics and exploited by a few Hollywood-based distribution companies. These cartoons were produced mostly in New York City, at first by individual animators but later by teams of illustrators working in studios. In terms of technical quality, they were black-and-white silent films usually running seven minutes long. Some cartoons offered character dialogue as on-screen words or “titles” enclosed in “speech balloons,” like those in newspaper comic strips, but because of the absence of sound, animators generally...

  7. TWO The Arrival of Sound
    (pp. 15-36)

    Between 1928 and 1934, the animation industry redefined itself with the introduction of sound synchronization. Although America’s movie industry quickly embraced sound after the phenomenal success of the first “talkie,”The Jazz Singer,in 1927, animation studios greeted the new technology with mixed feelings. Producers Walt Disney and Max Fleischer were the most willing to animate to sound; they released their first sound cartoons within the next two years. Pat Sullivan was reluctant to do so and discontinued production of “Felix the Cat” in 1929; the following year he grudgingly added soundtracks to earlier, silent “Felix” cartoons, whose designs lacked...

  8. THREE Black Characterizations
    (pp. 37-60)

    In 1930 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) enacted the Motion Picture Production Code (henceforth the Code) for filmmakers to follow. Throughout the 1920s civic and religious groups, furious at the increasing sexual and violent content of films, had called for either the movie industry to censor itself or the federal government to institute controls. Code author Martin Quigley, a devout Catholic and the publisher of the trade periodicalMotion Picture Herald, consulted with Catholic leaders before drafting the new rules. In general terms, the Code sought to affirm the principles of “good taste,” requiring that “no picture...

  9. FOUR Fred “Tex” Avery and “Trickster” Animation
    (pp. 61-72)

    Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery, who directed cartoons for Leon Schlesinger Productions from 1935 to 1941, often gave them a very unlikely African American aesthetic. No scholarship on animation reveals the remotest familiarity on Avery’s part with black culture. A white man from Texas, he frequently resorted to ethnic stereotypes—especially African American ones—for humor in his films. When he decided to develop unique ways of getting laughs from film audiences, however, he drew on elements of African American expression that had been integrated into American culture for generations.

    Avery set himself apart from other directors by pioneering “trickster animation.”...

  10. FIVE Black Representation and World War II Political Concerns
    (pp. 73-86)

    From the very beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, the blackface image contributed to the war effort of the U.S. animation industry. Leon Schlesinger Productions started work on the war bonds commercialLeon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunnyin late November 1941, completing it only eight days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7. According to theHollywood Reporter, a cartoon of similar length and quality usually took two months to produce. The film displays patriotic symbols such as Bugs dressed as Uncle Sam, and he, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd wear American army uniforms while singing the...

  11. SIX African American Representation and Changing Race Relations
    (pp. 87-103)

    As World War II ended, the movie industry offered fewer roles for African Americans. The popularity of the all-black musical had waned. Because of mounting criticism from civil rights activists about servile characters played by blacks, roles for maid and butler characters in movies dried up. Meanwhile, leading roles for African Americans in dramatic films were few and far between.

    The animated theatrical cartoon was one of the few media that remained consistent in its African American imagery. Hollywood had not developed any new black comedy stars during the war. Therefore, animators continued to draw on older actors and characterizations...

  12. SEVEN United Productions and the End of Animated Black Representation
    (pp. 104-119)

    Changes in African American imagery in the animation industry corresponded to a period of change in race relations which the nation entered after World War II. As African Americans began serving in integrated military units and playing on major-league baseball teams in the late 1940s, some independent cartoon producers used their films to promote racial integration throughout society. At the same time, segregation still persisted in many communities, and audiences still enjoyed crude caricatures of blacks. Hollywood animators found ways to preserve racial humor without attracting anti-stereotype activists.

    A pamphlet deemed subversive by the federal government was an unlikely source...

  13. CONCLUSION: The Legacy of Animated African American Expression
    (pp. 120-122)

    As animation studios struggled to stay open over the next two decades, they tried to retain their formulas for caricaturing blacks without drawing black figures. Having served as the foundation of the theatrical cartoon industry for over fifty years, African American culture had become inextricable from animation. When Friz Freleng sought to modernize the fairy taleThree Little Pigsfor a “Looney Tunes” episode, he cast the pink animals as bebop musicians, dressed them in zoot suits, gave them slang words to speak, and called the filmThree Little Bops(1957). “Southern” animal characters of the 1960s such as Terrytoons’...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 123-132)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 133-137)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 138-140)