In addition, Bud Fisher, who produced the “Mutt and Jeff” cartoon series, advised animators to avoid caricatures that could offend African Americans. “For while using the negro as a butt for comedy might be popular in New England, in the South where the exhibitor is largely dependent on colored patronage, it would be very unwise,” he told Motography magazine for its August 25, 1917 issue.
One of the very few animated films to caricature the Klan at the height of the revival’s popularity was the “Aesop’s Fables” episode The Wayward Dog, which the Keith-Albee company released ninety-five years ago this month. The film’s plot is about a dog who falls in with a lawless pack and then breaks the law himself. The print advertisement for the cartoon does not hint at content concerning the organization; instead, it contains a sketch by Paul Terry of a canine officer holding a dog. The fable’s “moral” below the sketch read as follows:
On the other hand, the trade journal Exhibitors Trade Review described the film as “a satire on the activities of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’” in its issue for New Year’s Eve, 1921. According to the magazine, the protagonist in the cartoon is a lapdog leaving his rich household to socialize with “some dog members of the Klan.” Also, the periodical noted that the film offers no redemption for the character, who is the only one of the pack to be arrested. “Although it is an innocent accessory, Officer Dog captures and kills the lap-dog for a crime committed by its lawless pals,” said the journal. The Wayward Dog’s moral is, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” The cartoon warns against not only criminal behavior but also the Klan’s power of persuasion.
A wayward pup once joined a crew
Of dogs who stole and burgled, too.
One night, when they set out to rob,
They made him lookout on the job.
Some people came—he barked, and they
(the robber-dogs) all got away;
Only the wayward pup was caught,
From which we gain this Moral Thought
This maxim, full of wisdom deep:
“We’re judged by company we keep!”
Some of the staffers of the Aesop’s Fables studio at the time comprised part of the demographics that the new Klan abhorred. Animators Emanuel “Mannie” Davis and Hugh Shields were second-generation Americans. Davis’s parents came to the United States from Hungary, and Shields’s parents emigrated from Ireland. In contrast to the original Klan, the revised group had chapters across the country. Consequently, the artists had a personal stake in derisively depicting the organization. Their cartoon culturally contributed to the strong and immediate backlash against the Klan, and the group once again petered out by the end of the 1920s.
Commercial animation rarely addressed political movements after The Wayward Dog. Some studio cartoons referred to the Prohibition Era, unionism, and the counterculture over the next four decades. However, animators opted to entertain without advocacy after the 1920s. As the animators became less “ethnic” and more mainstream, and their films evolved in the film industry from novelties to essential Hollywood film-packaging, the immigrants and children of immigrants had less incentive to use their art for protest.
Meanwhile, cartoon marketers played upon the familiarity of the “KKK” initials when publicizing animating films. Initially, newspapers promoted Silent-Era “Krazy Kat” episodes as “Krazy Kat Komedies” and then “Krazy Kat Kartoons.” Columbia Pictures later marketed the character’s Saturday matinees as the Krazy Kat Klub (above). From the 1930s to the 1960s, theaters nationwide promoted their cartoon matinees as “Kiddie Kartoon Karnivals” and, after Technicolor’s development, “Kolor Kartoon Karnivals.” Also, in 1947 the Interstate theater chain from Dallas packaged cartoons together and released the compilation as Mirth of a Nation, in reference to the 1915 pro-Klan movie Birth of a Nation. Nevertheless, the gravitation of publicists to the acronym did not extend to the studios, and the Aesop’s Fables studio set the animation industry’s precedent for standing against the Ku Klux Klan.