When I was working on my dissertation and future book The Colored Cartoon almost twenty years ago, I wrote to several animators to see what memories they would share about working with ethnic characters. Some refused, but many others accepted my invitation for correspondence. Here is a transcript of what Bill Melendez wrote to me on January 29, 1998.
He included my questions in his response to me.
Your letter of January 25th was a very pithy and sensitive query.
#1. How did you feel about studios making cartoons with stereotypical images in the 1940s- especially Warners’ ‘Inki the Savage’ or Tom and Jerry’s ‘Mammy’ character- during the time you were an animator?
Although the union was very much concerned and opposed to these type of spots (under a business agent, Maury Howard) we in general saw no harm in the humor. Remember this was a time when ‘Amos and Andy’ were very popular and we all practiced in the use of ‘Outhouse’ humor. I certainly didn’t see any harm in these spot. [sic]
#2. Did Warner director Art Davis make or suggest any cartoons with ethnic humor that you considered objectionable? In hindsight, are there any Warner cartoons of the 1940s by any director that you feel the studio should not have made?
You pick on mainly the least creative and certainly the least likable director of the Warner’s motley crew. As to the production out of Warners at this time it reflected the ‘Dogtown’ taste and ill educated artist at the time. I certainly never complained or criticized what was done at the time.
#3. Considering UPA’s thoughtful ethnic images in the ‘Brotherhood of Man’ and the studio’s crediting of a black man for ‘Rooty Toot Toot’’s music score, do you recall UPA as a minority friendly studio, in relation to images? Do you have any recollections, memories, or stories on UPA’s production of ‘Rudy [sic] Toot Toot’?
UPA was the only ‘Studio” of the time with enough sensibility and good manners and creative talent to fit the description of being a ‘minority-friendly’ studio. Other than that ‘Rooty-Toot-Toot’ was made by the best director and artist at UPA and that the chief animator was Art Babbit, to regale you the doing s and recollections of the times would be too much. Let it be that the Un-American activities Committee of the US Congress saw fit to destroy UPA. UPA was too liberal for the times, (especially the skunks who postured as being ‘Producers’ in our industry. Chief among which was Walt Disney.) From 1947 to 1951 was the Honeymoon allotted to such a great studio.
#4. In your opinion or to your knowledge, did UPA consciously steer away from the stereotypical images? Or was the studio trying to produce cartoons that differed from the Hollywood norm?
Both! UPA generally had the education and the good manners to do the right thing, especially creatively and artistically, UPA didn’t have to even consider what you ask, we just did what was right! Our stories, designs and execution was what was important and our leaders, such as John Hu[b]ley, Bob Cannon, directed the pictures.
Looking back on the letter, I am struck by Melendez’s candidness about the likability of a director at Warner Brothers. It’s different than the standard discussions about the different jokes and filmmaking styles of each director. I am also interested in his claim about the conservative politics of the animation producers of the postwar era. Finally, he seemed to take for granted that UPA would avoid ethnic humor because of who comprised UPA; it was just “right” and “good manners.”
His frankness about animated ethnic humor tremendously helped me write my dissertation and book. This letter is one of my favorites of all the ones I received from animators.