Christopher P. Lehman
March 26, 2016 posted by

A Letter From Bill Melendez

Bill Melendez in 1974

Bill Melendez in 1974

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.


“Dear Chris,

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.

Warm regards,
Bill Melendez


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.

14 Comments

  • Looking at Davis’ output as director at Warners you can, at best, cite one gag and two cartoons that contain any objectionable material at all — the Chinese dance Wellington does after being crowned with a garbage can lid in “Doggone Cats”, and the Mexican and Native American characters in “Mexican Joyride” and “Nothing But the Tooth”. But you really have to be hyper-critical to find either of the latter two objectionable, since the former focuses almost all of it’s attention on Daffy and his battle with the bull, while the latter has Porky being needled to death by an Indian who is far more beta-male nerd than any type of 1940s stereotype (Chuck Jones would use the same going-against-stereotype gag in his “A Feather In His Hare” released at about the same time).

    All that’s to say I’m not quite sure what Melendez is getting at when he rips Davis in context of the letter, other than to pump up his next employer by comparison. Saying of Artie and the other Warners directors’ output that “it reflected the ‘Dogtown’ taste and ill educated artist at the time” comes across as insinuating that the efforts by them were hotbeds of gags and imagery crying out for the ban-hammer to be laid down, without offering anything to justify that statement, as if every other cartoon or so coming off the line at the studio was “Angel Puss”. That certainly wasn’t the case, especially by the latter half of the 1940s when Melendez was working for Davis (the irony today being that the main cartoons UPA is known for with the Magoo theatrical series have in themselves come under attack by advocates for the visually impaired for how their portray their lead character’s nearsightedness. There’s not a racial aspect to that protest, but it does show that when you judge works of half a century earlier based on modern sensibilities, eventually, everyone’s ox can get a little gored).

  • This subject is one that I never honestly know how to approach; I collect most of these cartoons just to fill in blanks, and most times, I say that it is not a good idea to sweep these under the rug, especially regarding the Warner Brothers cartoons, because the films were not intended for a strictly kid audience from the get go. My overall impression of them is animation poking fun at the ways that most ethnic groups were looked at in live action films, although I’m sure that someone could give me a long list of images and segments in classic animation where the stereotype seemed neatly designed to slap the collective faces of the culture being mocked. Well, since making such comments, I’ve realized that there were films made throughout those classic years that tried to put a more detailed and clearer light on other cultures and what it is like to be treated as less than human.

    It is always an interesting subject to me, because there were times when folks of other cultures did take part in adding voices to incidental characters throughout the cartoons; I wish there was more on that aspect of the cartoons and why those folks chose to add their voices if the cartoons indeed offended them. This is not to say that I believe that, merely because folks of other ethnic cultures took part in the jabs, the cartoon should not be considered racially insensitive, but I do wonder what they were channeling when they were doing that voice work. I can only say that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stunning jazz scores in classic cartoons of all studios and wished that the subject matter was more respectful of the music. There are titles that I want to see released only *BECAUSE* of the wonderful score. Outside of that, there are titles that I’d love to see unearthed strictly because the insensitive material or dated material is annoyingly there just to take away from the larger portions of the cartoon which are amazing bits of art, but how do you shrug off that which is annoying or leaves a question mark on your face as to why the character is behaving as he is behaving?

    Again, I could give you distinct examples, but all kinds of film have histories and, I feel, right now, that animation is not allowed to have a history, bad or good, because all the major studios that have cartoon characters begging to be reintroduced to families around the world want their characters to seem as if created in the present day and, I’m sorry, but many characters beloved to us all have their place and time! So many times, these have been neatly explained, but then again, many of us were not born in those times and, so, unlike Mr. Melendez who was present in the room when some notable titles were produced, we cannot reinvent those times and that is the obstacle to what many toon fans would like to see. I don’t have an answer here, but that is how I’ve begun to see the situation.

  • Thanks for doing this post, Christopher. I’ve been curious about your books for a long time. Your “Vietnam Era” book sells for quite a bit as an out-of-print volume, and I haven’t seen a copy of “Colored Cartoon” offered in awhile. I should try to check them out from the library and read them.

    Are you familiar with “That’s Enough, Folks” by Henry Sampson? I have a copy of that, and really appreciate the work Mr. Sampson put in to the book, compiling the many trade reviews of each ethnic cartoon, and giving his own story synopsis and opinions along with them. Is your book similar to his?

    You’ll disagree with me on this, but I really like Lilian Randolph’s voice as “Dinah” or the “Maid” in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Especially when she loses her temper at Tom, like in “Mouse Cleaning” or “Saturday Evening Puss”, her voice was completely the character. She was also a fine singer, as she did on “The Great Gildersleeve” program as “Birdie”. I feel that all the censorship on the old cartoons, cutting all the ethnic comedy out of them, ultimately downgrades the legacy of a performer like Ms. Randolph, and assumes that the audience can’t decide for itself whether a particular performance or cartoon are patently offensive or not. In the end, censorship is fighting our Grandfathers’ battles, we have enough of our own to fight about today.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Mark. I do have Sampson’s book. It came out while I was writing my dissertation, so it became a valuable resource. I consider it a reference guide with detailed synopses for many films. My COLORED CARTOON book is different in that I interviewed animators for their perspectives on films, and papers from the NAACP are among my citations for my analysis of anti-stereotype campaigns of the 1940s and ’50s in the book. Also, my book is not a reference book but an analysis of images.
      As for Lillian Randolph’s work in “Tom and Jerry,” it certainly was not her fault that the scripts were written in dialect and with stereotyped content, and she made the most of the material she was given. She could not help the shuffle and frumpiness the animators gave her character. Moreover, she once said that playing mammy-roles was a “birthright” that she was “proud” to claim, so it does not appear that she minded the work.
      I’d also argue that as stereotyped as the maid was, there was some subversive defiance of Jim Crow customs. She sometimes entered the front door (instead of the back) of her employer’s home, and she was seen as able to read, as when she read a book in NIT-WITTY KITTY and a manual for Mechano in PUSH-BUTTON KITTY. Such exceptions were rare in her appearances, but they were at least there.
      I don’t think the films should be censored, but I don’t think they should be marketed to children either or shown where children can easily see them without understanding the historical context. A disclaimer at the beginning of a DVD/Blueray compilation or an online broadcast would be appropriate, and adults should definitely watch the films with their kids. The NAACP argued as early as 1949 that showing stereotyped cartoons harmed children’s minds. In a sense, their argument was a precursor to their doll-baby test for BROWN V. BOARD.

  • So, the animators(or at least one) didn’t have a strong opinion with Davis’ unit. I’m guessing that might be one of the reasons why that unit was cut short.

    • Could be. Also, Davis’s unit was the most recent of the Warner Brothers units when it was cut. So perhaps it’s a “last hired, first fired” situation, except that it’s “last promoted, first demoted.”

    • Nic, in reading several trade publications of the day, I suspect Davis’ unit was cut for the same reason the Blair-Lah unit was cut at MGM–money. The studio wasn’t getting the financial return on its cartoons from bookings to warrant four units.
      Given Lloyd Turner’s comments about Davis, what Melendez wrote shouldn’t be a surprise. Fans may like the cartoons, but Turner’s interview with Mike Barrier gives the impression Davis was an uncertain director who didn’t stick up for his unit members.

    • Art Davis made it seem like it was between him and McKimson getting their unit cut, but McKimson had more seniority having been there since 1930. So the WB brass sided with him.

      This is probably the only negative opinion of Mr. Davis I’ve read, and I’ve even heard that Melendez expresses a more positive opinion of Davis in another interview so it’s strange that he made this comment here. Art Leonardi told me Davis was a great guy, and Davis’s directing legacy is pretty solid evidence of his creativity.

  • I cited Christopher P. Lehman’s books in much of my own grad school work. I hope we get to read more from him here on Cartoon Research!

    • Thank you! I’m posting one Saturday per month, so look for my next entry here in April.

    • Also, what was/is your graduate studies topic?

    • That’s wonderful! I’ll look forward to your posts…

      And regarding grad school… I tried to shoehorn my interest in animation history into a media studies degree at every opportunity! I always thought if I could have found a way to do the same in a PhD program somewhere, I would have kept pursuing my education…

  • Thanks for your post and for sharing Bill Melendez’s letter; this was certainly an interesting and informative read, and I look forward to your future contributions.

    Oddly enough, watching the old Tom & Jerry cartoons as a white Mississippi boy in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I always felt that “Dinah” was the owner of the house (and of Tom), at least for most of the cartoons she appeared in. Even more oddly, her uneducated speech patterns didn’t strike me as racially-based so much as an exaggeration of the Southern dialect that I heard from quite a few of my friends, acquaintances, and relatives. Now I don’t mean to imply that my ~8-year-old self was correct in those observations and that people are wrong to point out how she is yet another negative ethnic stereotype, but since reaching adulthood I’ve often wondered if others shared my childhood view of the character, or if I was (nearly) alone in seeing her that way.

    • Thank you for the positive feedback. You are definitely not alone in your interpretation of the maid. I have heard others say similar things about her. On the other hand, I have copies of all of the scripts and transcripts of her episodes from MGM, and in not one is she ever identified as anything besides a “maid” or “mammy.” She is never officially identified by the studio as the woman of the house, and she was never given a name.

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