Extremely rare cartoons from 1916 to 1943 offer an unvarnished look at how black people were portrayed during what is called “the golden age of animation”. They include work by some of the most famous cartoonists of all time. All of them are now suppressed.
Professor Bonehead Shipwrecked (1916) Harry Palmer
Many cartoons from the teens have been lost. This is rare example of the work of pioneer animator Harry Palmer. It concerns a not very bright explorer whose ship sinks leaving him in Africa where he is confronted by African natives. It also shows that American anti-intellectualism has a long history.
Mutt and Jeff in One Too Many (1925) Bud Fisher
Mutt and Jeff were comic strip stars at the turn of the twentieth century. In the early teens their comic strip exploits were made into animated cartoons. This is cutdown version sold as a Toy Film in the Thirties of the longer cartoon “Invisible Revenge.” In this example Jeff discovers a potion that renders him invisible. He is assisted by a black man. I appreciate the information from Tommy Jose Stathes in identifying this film.
Love in Black and White (aka Two Cupids, Amour noir et amour blanc) (1928) Wladislaw Starewicz
Starewicz is the all time master of stop motion animation. He started his career in Russia and moved to France after the Russian revolution. This cartoon concerns two cupids, one black and one white. It also features caricatures of silent film stars including Charlie Chaplin and Tom Mix.
Mickey’s Man Friday (1935) Walt Disney
Mickey Mouse is ship wrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals. He is befriended by one of them and together they escape. This is a fanciful version of Daniel DeFoe’s novel “Robinson Crusoe” published in 1719.
Streamlined Robinson Crusoe (1938) Paul Terry
Another version of the Crusoe story. Paul Terry was an animation pioneer who created nearly one thousand cartoons in a career that started in 1915 and lasted until 1966.
The Rasslin Match (1934) Van Beuren
The Amos & Andy radio show began in the 1920s with two white actors, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden,as the leads. It was so popular that cartoons were also made of it, with Correll and Gosden again supplying the voices. In this program there are examples of the works of most of the great animators of the 1930’s. The least remembered is Amadee Van Beuren. His studio produced animation from 1928 until his death in 1937.
Toyland Broadcast (1934) Rudolf Ising
Rudolf Ising worked with Walt Disney in the early days of the Disney company. He and Hugh Harman split from Disney to make cartoons by themselves. They called their company Harman and Ising. This cartoon is about a little boy who falls asleep and dreams that his toys come to life as famous radio stars in his room. Among the radio stars are black performers.
The Old House (1936) Hugh Harman
After leaving Disney, Harman and Ising went to work for Warner Brothers, making that company’s first animated cartoons. There they created the character of Bosko. When Harman and Ising left Warner Brothers they retained the rights to the name Bosko but not the animated figure. They created an all new Bosko, turning him into a black child. In this cartoon he and his friend Honey venture into a haunted house.
Uncle Tom’s Cabana (1947) Tex Avery
Uncle Tom was created by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is a a seminal work of American literature. The phrase “an uncle tom” became a derogative term for subservient black men. Tex Avery made two cartoons lampooning the story. The first was at Warner Brothers in 1937 as Uncle Tom’s Bungalow. He left Warners in 1942 and moved over to MGM. There in 1947 he revisited the story with this imaginative version.
Liza On The Ice (1941) Walter Lantz
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin there were other characters interacting with Uncle Tom. Among them were Liza, Silas Legree and Little Eva. This cartoon tells a story from the book featuring those characters in a shocking and imaginative manner.
Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) Bob Clampett
In 1943 Bob Clampett was visited by the pioneering black choreographer Katherine Dunham. She suggested that he make an all black character cartoon. Black character cartoons had been common in the 1930’s but had been largely abandoned because of claims of racism. That year he produced two all black cast cartoons. This was one of them. It uses a caricature of the piano player Fats Waller in the story of a jazz man who is blasted into a surreal world through hot jazz music. For the surreal world Clampett reused footage from his 1937 cartoon Porky in Wackyland.
For most of the twentieth century, the only roles for black actors and actresses in Hollywood were as chauffeurs, porters, toilet attendants, maids, butlers, shoe shine boys, elevator operators and criminals. The history of blacks in narrative motion pictures has been discussed and documented at length in scores of books, articles, and documentary films. However, the history of black people in cartoons has been largely overlooked. The only thing close to a documentary was at the end of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled(2000) where he collected as many racist and stereotypical images as he could find, and edited them into a dazzling display of forbidden cartoon history. I use the word forbidden advisedly. Offensive images were removed from cartoons starting in the 1950’s. Specific cartoons were completely banned. This program shows images of blacks in animation from the earliest days of the medium into the post war period of the late 1940’s. It includes work by many of the most influential animators in the history of animation.
I created this show for the Manchester, England Kino Film Fest in 2000. The festival focused on blacks and their images on film. Blaxploitation Cartoon Special was easily the most controversial program in the festival. I was called away from dinner to intercede in a melee in the auditorium that had broken out at the end of a show. One black man had berated the white members of the audience for laughing at the cartoons. Another black man added fuel to the fire by saying he also laughed because they were funny. A white man defended himself by saying that telling whites that they shouldn’t laugh was racist. It went on from there, but no blood was spilled. In 2001 I took it to Europe. That fall Manchester had me show it again at the Kino Fest. Maybe they were hoping I would get shot and the fest would get a lot of publicity. In 2003 I showed it at the PiFan Film Festival in Puchon, Korea and also in Japan.