Christopher P. Lehman
April 23, 2016 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

A Letter From Jack Zander

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Since last month the comments about my letter from Bill Melendez included some references to the African American maid from “Tom and Jerry,” I thought I’d make this month’s posting about Jack Zander, who had plenty to say about the African American characters he animated.

He was involved in Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” during the days of Bosko, and he worked on the maid’s earliest “Tom and Jerry” episodes. He responded to my questions about his opinions of Bosko and the maid. In the process, he addressed Mel Shaw’s claim that animators looked at Max Maxwell in blackface when animating Bosko. In addition, his answer about Boskos partly included an anecdote he had previously shared with Leonard Maltin (about the handyman).

Zander also made a reference to the University of Massachusetts (U of M), where I was studying at the time. He could only speak to the early “Tom and Jerry” episodes he animated, so his discussion of the maid as a short-lived character does not take into account her postwar resurrection after Zander left the series and its studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Anyhow, here is Zander’s letter—another personal favorite of mine—from February 8, 1999:


“Dear Christopher,

“In answer to your letter I think Mel Shaw was pulling someone’s leg when he said that about Max Maxwell. I worked there for some time, animated many Boskos and never looked at Max. He was a good friend of mine and a very efficient studio manager and checker, Never saw him in black-face. Bosko was supposed to be a little black boy and of course had a girl friend who looked exactly the same except she had a bow in her hair and a short skirt. We were not as racially conscious in those days. Many a character had a black face and thick lips. Hugh Harman styled Bosko as close to Mickey as he dared and if you look you’ll see the resemblance, very similar in construction.

“There was, in fact, a joke about who or what Bosko was. We had a cleaning man or ‘handy man’ or whatever who used to hang around the studio and he asked me one day, ‘You got Mickey the Mouse and Felix the Cat but Bosko the What?’ I couldn’t answer. No one admitted openly that [h]e was a little black boy but it was true. Perhaps the beginning of a racist conscience?

“He was fully animated and moved around as much like Mickey as we could make him. In fact we were directed to study Disney’s stuff and copy the moves that Mickey made. Even some of the gags were lifted right out of a Disney film, it was a wonder to me that Walt didn’t raise a complaint but then he (Walt) was always busy looking ahead and working on the next picture. No time to worry about being copied.

“Now the ‘Mammy’ in Tom and Jerry was an outright racist cartoon character. Had the typical negro voice and served as a foil for the two animal characters. Showing just her feet and lower body kept us from worrying about her face and making her another ‘character’ to give personality to. A smart move by Joe and Bill, a conscious one, too I believe. As you can see she didn’t last long in the series for the tw[o], Tom and Jerry, became very strong on their own and didn’t need any secondary characters to make their story.

“Hope this answers some of your questions, don’t be afraid to ask more and if I can help out I will. Good luck in your studies. My granddaughter went to U of M. I went up to watch many a football game. A great school. Work hard.

Sincerely,
Jack Zander


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I should add that whenever I interviewed an animator, I never referred to them or their work as racist. Sometimes I mentioned content as stereotypes, and I occasionally asked about negative feedback they may have seen or heard. But any references to cartoons as racist were always from the interviewees and were never prompted by me. I remember the first time I read his comments about the maid, and I remember feeling so shocked and pleasantly surprised that he would be so blunt and matter-of-fact about how ethnic humor shaped the character. When I got to the phrase “outright racist,” I think my jaw hit the floor.

19 Comments

  • Kind of odd is when CBS rebroadcast the Tom & Jerry cartoon back in the mid 1960’s they aired a redubbed version of the Tom & Jerry cartoons featuring the Maid known as Mammy now voiced by June Foray using a Irish Brough accent which I thought it was weird. Another thing is that they never shown Mammy’s face only her torso unlike the other cartoons like Little Audrey remake Song of the Birds. It wasn’t till the 1950’s after Mammy was fazed out from the Tom & Jerry cartoons that they decided to show the “human counterparts” in “full body mode”.

    • CBS did run a few of the cartoons with “Mammy” with June Foray’s voice dubbed. Then there were the others where they “optically” replaced her image and dubbed in a Irish voice. Funny, no one make an issue about that being a “stereotype,” which it is.

  • I have to admit that I am a little puzzled as to why Harman chose black stereotypes as a way to add to the character that Bosko was. I still hold some of the MGM titles among my favorites but, as I say, it is more for the animation spectacle, and I was a kid when I saw these cartoons and didn’t immediately see the offensive nature of the film. Hey, in a cartoon like “CIRCUS DAZE”, which mostly belonged to Bruno, I was too busy trying to keep up with all the images in every corner of the screen! Looking back on the character now, my memories of the chaotic spectacle of those MGM cartoons still sticks as something I’d still enjoy if I could see the cartoons, but Bosko was so much more likeable in his LOONEY TUNES incarnation, even if he was considered a Mickey Moue clone. The real shame of it is that the big trilogy of cartoons could have been totally amazing if they were more than just one racial stereotype after another! I liked the concept of the three cartoons with Bosko always headed off to his grandmother’s house but somehow conjuring up this imagined scenario along the way that would include good music. Jazz is an exciting musical form that lends itself neatly to cartoons, so why not honor it instead of finding ways to mock its presence and the artists that made the musical genre great!! And, as for the housekeeper character in the TOM AND JERRY cartoons, again, like Bosko, I don’t know why she had to be black. I think they could have gotten just as much mileage out of just us seeing Tom being owned by a woman, similar to the MGM cartoon, “CHIPS OFF HE OLD BLOCK” or the woman and her kids in Ising’s TWO PUPS cartoons. Then again, the voices that appear in the cartoons of this type often got their start on radio comedy shows. Bill and Joe were always borrowing from radio comedy, and that is where the character insensitively called Mammy Two Shoes came from, but the end gag in “MOUSE CLEANING” came more from film comedy and was a reference to the man who called himself and his comedy act Stepin Fetchit. The bit cannot be seen today unless there is a commentary track talking about who Lincoln Theodore Perry was and how his character and alter-ego became popular.

  • The weird thing is that in one Bosko cartoon, his face gets blackened as the result of an explosion, and he exclaims “Mammy!”

    Which kind of implies that the animators no longer thought of him as a blackface caricature the rest of the time.

    • Having first saw Bosko back when those cartoons aired on Nickelodeon nearly 30 years ago, I though he was some sort of ape/primate figure, but certainly not a human being, the way I thought he was drawn.

  • The limitations of early 1930s drawing ironically serve to make Harman & Ising’s efforts more palatable — i.e. Nickelodeon could air Bosko cartoons in the late 1980s and early 90s precisely because of the “Bosko the what?” factor, and due to the fact that outside of their first LT effort and in 1-2 other spots, the stereotypical black gags of the 30s/early 40s were not part of the series, since Hugh was trying to mimic Disney and wanted Bosko to follow the lead of Mickey. (The redesigned Bosko of the MGM years is probably less offensive, image-wise, than most other African-American animated characters of the period. But had the studio had the skill to use that design during the Warners years, those cartoons never would have seen the light of day on cable TV 50 years after they were made, since there would have been no ambiguity about what Bosko was supposed to be.)

    As for Mammy, there was a bit of a change in how Bill & Joe used her in the early 50s cartoons — the stereotypical malapropisms were still there, but there were things like her going out for the night or ordering things (like a robot cat) for the house that tended to indicate Mammy was now Tom’s owner, and not just the maid. A very small effort to improve her position, and certainly not enough to avoid criticism even contemporaneously, since even before June Foray was dubbing her voice for the 1965 CBS series, Bill & Joe had replaced Mammy with a Foray-voiced housewife, starting with their first CinemaScope cartoon, “Pet Peeve”.

  • There was a now controversial episode of Tiny Toon Adventures entitled “Fields of Honey” about Babs Bunny compiaining (in a slightly sexist way) about why many of the superstar Looney Toons were male and why there wasn’t a female superstar (guess Babs never heard of Beans the Cat’s girlfriend Miss Kitty).

    She and Buster went into the inter sanctum of the Acme Looneyversity Toon Library and met a mysterious vault keeper who introduced Babs to the Bosko and Honey cartoons. Babs enlisted the help of Bookworm in discovering a “documentary” on how Bosko and Honey became superstars and when Porky Pig came around they fell on hard times being booed of the stage by “Technocolored hecklers” ripping them because they were Monotone and “disappearing” into obscurity. Babs now had a mission by renting out a movie theater and doing a major media blitz to get the public to go see the old Bosko and Honey cartoons. There she met a mysterious elderly woman who later turned out to be Honey herself after being rejuvenate by the laughter of the audience. And the mysterious vault keeper reviled himself as Bosko and was reunited with Honey.

    Note how both Bosko & Honey was drastically changed from thier stereotypical looks to more like a “funny animal” personally that some say that it was how the Animaniacs (Yakko,Wakko and Dot Warner) were created which makes me wonder why did they decide to politically correct Bosko and Honey and not letting the younger viewers see how Bosko & Honey originally looked like like when we seen the Bosko and Honey cartoons when we were young when they were televised on TV (I’ve seen the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies Bosko & Honey cartoon and not the later MGM retooled version).

    • Didn’t help that those same Bosko cartoons were already getting modest exposure on Nickelodeon through their airing of the selected package of cartoons WB sent them that included plenty of 1930’s B&W entries, while this episode first aired.

  • Chris, in your book, you reference the negative (NAACP?) reaction to the 1950 reissue of Lonesome Mouse. I think you might have been onto something, as that very well could have been what ended the maid character altogether. The last two cartoons with her (Triplet Trouble and Push-Button Kitty) would’ve been in production at that time, and at least one (Mouse for Sale) had been written to feature her but ultimately didn’t. Any other insight?

  • Jack Zander’s claim that Mammy didn’t “last very long” in the Tom and Jerry series is nonsense. She was there from the very first cartoon in 1940 and lasted until 1952 — approximately two thirds of the original T&J series’ run. Also, I think she has more personality than any other character who has served as Tom’s human “master”; Lillian Randolph’s voice work being a great plus.
    So this part of Zander’s letter was disappointing to me.

    • Surprisingly how MGM replaced Lillian Randolph with June Foray doing a Irish Brough accent for Mammy when Tom and Jerry was broadcasted in the 1965 for thier Saturday morning broadcast.

  • “I should add that whenever I interviewed an animator, I never referred to them or their work as racist. Sometimes I mentioned content as stereotypes, and I occasionally asked about negative feedback they may have seen or heard. But any references to cartoons as racist were always from the interviewees and were never prompted by me. I remember the first time I read his comments about the maid, and I remember feeling so shocked and pleasantly surprised that he would be so blunt and matter-of-fact about how ethnic humor shaped the character.”

    I often wonder if all of this would be AS bothersome today if it weren’t for the horrible fact that America was SO segregated back then that ANYTHING we see in old movies just has to be questioned today regardless of how “innocent” the makers were. Certainly Zander and others in his generation meant no harm. Yet if you were darker skinned or Asian… not Euro-Caucasian… you probably could not get a job in any established animation studio before the late 1950s.

    Today we are getting constant news about right-wing Republican politicians state by state using “religious freedom” as their excuse for overturning gays’ rights and fussing about transgenders using the “wrong” restroom. However, at least everybody outside of the right-leaning media (a.k.a. Fox News and other conservative platforms) is at least questioning how bigoted and wrong it is. Also major celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and companies like PayPal are reacting in action. A similar situation is also happening with the scorn many have over how conservative politics is discriminating against Muslims.

    Yet back then, NOBODY bothered questioning the fact that so much industry… Hollywood and otherwise… tended to be “white only”. These animators probably stuck to their side of the street and were simply ignorant about a lot. As much as Robert Clampett’s COAL BLACK gets attacked, at least his team bothered to travel to the “other side” and intermingled in order to lap up some “culture”… and did use some black performers on that film’s soundtrack.

    Looking at the Mammy cartoons, only her name and jive-talk bother me a little. Otherwise she is a strong character no different than the other humans that Thomas the cat must contend with. Strange to say this, but I feel she and George Pal’s Jasper are probably more positive characters than negative ones. OK… I admit that the Puppetoon JASPER AND THE WATERMELONS may be a bit too much, but he is still a very lovable character little different than other “little boys” like Scrappy and Willie Whopper.

    Usually the problems in old movies, both animated and live-action, appear more troublesome when the races intermingle and one is the “superior” race always being called “Mister” or “Mrs.”by the inferior race, which is always spoken to on a first name basis. The Hal Roach “Our Gang” comedies are OK once you get past Farina always acting “lazy” simply because the kids all treat each other equally… and kids are allowed to do that. Not adults. Granted, I have liked how Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong acted as “equals” in the the two films they appeared together… not unlike the Jack Benny / Eddie Anderson set-up. Yet everybody over the age of 12 “knows their place”. Re-watching how even little Shirley Temple acts “adult” over much older black performers in vintage thirties films still makes me squirm in discomfort.

    • I often wonder if all of this would be AS bothersome today if it weren’t for the horrible fact that America was SO segregated back then that ANYTHING we see in old movies just has to be questioned today regardless of how “innocent” the makers were.

      That is something we do need to keep in mind here. This was a very different atmosphere back then when such ‘borders’ were in place the way they were enforced or abided to.

      Certainly Zander and others in his generation meant no harm. Yet if you were darker skinned or Asian… not Euro-Caucasian… you probably could not get a job in any established animation studio before the late 1950s.

      I bet, aside from the one or two people that managed to get a foot through the door like Iwao Takamoto or Floyd Norman at Disney’s for instance, of course I’m sure most were usually stuck being assistants or other lower positions during that time.

      Today we are getting constant news about right-wing Republican politicians state by state using “religious freedom” as their excuse for overturning gays’ rights and fussing about transgenders using the “wrong” restroom. However, at least everybody outside of the right-leaning media (a.k.a. Fox News and other conservative platforms) is at least questioning how bigoted and wrong it is. Also major celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and companies like PayPal are reacting in action. A similar situation is also happening with the scorn many have over how conservative politics is discriminating against Muslims.

      Yet back then, NOBODY bothered questioning the fact that so much industry… Hollywood and otherwise… tended to be “white only”. These animators probably stuck to their side of the street and were simply ignorant about a lot. As much as Robert Clampett’s COAL BLACK gets attacked, at least his team bothered to travel to the “other side” and intermingled in order to lap up some “culture”… and did use some black performers on that film’s soundtrack.

      I’m sure that music was akin to what we might see today in the alternative pop/rock scene today (i.e., outside the mainstream). I do think there was a lot more “stick to your work” or “know your place” that was drilled into everyone in those days when it came to wanting to know more or complain over those unfair moments of their lives they simply had no outlet for (besides an collumn in a newspaper editorial section if that got their word out).

      Looking at the Mammy cartoons, only her name and jive-talk bother me a little. Otherwise she is a strong character no different than the other humans that Thomas the cat must contend with.

      Compare to the bland Cinemascope couple of the 50’s, she was certainly strong.

      Usually the problems in old movies, both animated and live-action, appear more troublesome when the races intermingle and one is the “superior” race always being called “Mister” or “Mrs.”by the inferior race, which is always spoken to on a first name basis. The Hal Roach “Our Gang” comedies are OK once you get past Farina always acting “lazy” simply because the kids all treat each other equally… and kids are allowed to do that. Not adults. Granted, I have liked how Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong acted as “equals” in the the two films they appeared together… not unlike the Jack Benny / Eddie Anderson set-up. Yet everybody over the age of 12 “knows their place”. Re-watching how even little Shirley Temple acts “adult” over much older black performers in vintage thirties films still makes me squirm in discomfort.

      I still wonder how my mom got through her childhood at all when the “White Flight” took off.

    • My mind went blank until you reminded me. I couldn’t remember Iwao Takamoto’s name when posting above. Yeah… sometimes if you were very, very talented and could really, really, REALLY prove yourself, there was a way to break through the racial barriers.

    • I take it you don’t believe in religious freedom, do you?

    • That’s an interesting analysis. Adding to the irony is the existence of Joe Barbera in the industry, who had very obvious Sicilian features, which were similar to those of some Mulattoes. I’m sure that the Italian surname helped “whitewash” any imposed bigotry in his case. Others who were dark and displayed perceived “negroid” traits experienced discrimination in certain fields in those days.

      George Herriman, was clearly a Creole Mulatto and the first “Black American Cartoonist” 100 years ago-a fact denied by some. In his case, his origins did not seem to be an issue with his contemporaries, and if they suspected him as being “part” Black, they never spoke of it. They simply referred to him as “The Greek.” In both cases, it was talent that overcame these barriers, as is should have. That’s what counts, as all will agree.

  • Maybe I’ve been fooling myself, but I always saw Mammy Two Shoes as the owner of the house. I don’t recall anything in the cartoons themselves that would rule that out. (No references to when the master or mistress would be home, or such, no family photos seen, etc.)

  • An important and eternal principle ought to be noted here: “To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.” – David A. Bednar

  • Here is a spot made by Zanders Pelican Studio in 1966 for Volkwagen. Maybe Jack Schnerk Animated it. Can sombeody identify the animator.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6LlHqFZ9Yk

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