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:
“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.
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.