Christopher P. Lehman
December 3, 2016 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

“Klanimation”

From the Mutt and Jeff cartoon "Accidents Won't Happen" (1925)

From the Mutt and Jeff cartoon “Accidents Won’t Happen” (1925)

In the 1910s American animation’s emergence coincided with the reemergence of the violent vigilante group the Ku Klux Klan after a dormancy of four decades. The original Klan had formed in 1866—just one year after both the Civil War and legal slavery ended—in Tennessee, and it terrorized African Americans and Republicans throughout the South until pressure from the federal government forced it underground after the 1870s. When it restarted during World War I, the organization targeted not only African Americans but also Catholics, Jews, and immigrants from Europe. William J. Simmons, who founded the revival, cautioned to his followers, “When the hordes of aliens walk to the ballot box and their votes outnumber yours, then that alien horde has got you by the throat.” Animators did not produce pro-Klan propaganda at the time, perhaps because so many Silent Era animators were first- or second-generation Americans.

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.

Aesop-title-600

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:

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!”

From Disney's "Alice's Mysterious Mystery" (1926)

Images evoking the Klan from Disney’s “Alice’s Mysterious Mystery” (1926)

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.

From Disney's "Alice's Mysterious Mystery" (1926)

From “Alice’s Mysterious Mystery” (1926)

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.

krazykatklub-600

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.

15 Comments

  • !!!!!!!

  • This is fascinating stuff. Imagine what the industry would have been like if there were the occasional political satire as animated cartoon in theaters. Despite toon matinees being considered “kiddie” fare, I still attest to classic theatrical cartoons being for all ages. It seemed to me that, at the dawn of TV animation, there emerged a more kid-friendly fare, like Art Clokey’s GUMBY which, despite the occasional reflection of entertainment of the times (Western “legends” and all that) had a more magical and gentle nature than most other animation studios.

    Jay Ward was as close to political/social satire as animation would get, and I enjoy the cartoons for that reason, but there is also something to be said for the first wave of “kids’ cartoons” as the stories were well written and could even keep an adult interested, but you could also feel this impression that the audience to some animated fare was to be strictly kids. This could be in part because some folks felt that the theatrical cartoons being aired during children’s hours were so much harsher than they remembered them. I think kids enjoyed them anyway, even if we didn’t get the references. I wonder, though, how many animators of the golden age might have been secretly chomping at the bitt to be “political” or socially relevant. Great post!

    • It’s weird to think such a concept was rather foreign to the mainstream for along time back then. It really wasn’t until the “underground” movement when that stuff started to show up among the public in certain places.

      I think kids enjoyed them anyway, even if we didn’t get the references. I wonder, though, how many animators of the golden age might have been secretly chomping at the bitt to be “political” or socially relevant. Great post!

      They probably wished they have had a head-start before it already happened.

  • That animated cartoons did not take off on the Ku Klux Klan more often was actually part of a larger trend in show business. Songs such as Billy Fritsch’s “Ku Ku (The Klucking of the Ku Klux Klan)” were the exception, rather than the rule.

    Even Will Rogers held to that standard when, at the end of his Victor recording “Timely Topics” commented.
    “I hear the Ku Klux is in town agaon. . . NO SIR–I AIN’T MAKING ANY JOKES ABOUT THEM!”

    This makes Cliff Edwards’ record of “Insufficient Sweetie” all the more curious, as it contains the following.
    “Now you may think that you will hold my hand
    That’s when a rabbi’ll be the Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan!”

    As for cartoons getting “less ethnic”,I’d have to quote Mr. Peavey, the druggist from “The Great Gildersleve””
    “Well, now–I wouldn’t say that!”

    If that were the case, how do you explain the appearance of the Hebrew characters for “Kosher for Passover” in such cartoons as “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” (1933, Fleischer)–or the Warner Bros.cartoon in which one squirrel is identifying his hoard of nuts as being “kosher for Passover’?

    • I never said the cartoons became less “ethnic” but rather that the animators did, and I had Isadore Freleng’s rechristening as “I. Freleng” in mind when I wrote that. You are correct that the Fleischer Studio incorporated immigrant ethnic humor into its work well into the sound era. My point was that ethnicity did not become a rallying cry for animators after cartoons from the 1920s like “The Wayward Dog.” The decline of the KKK to rally against may have been one reason, but the ability of immigrants and 2nd-generation folks to adapt to anti-Semitism and other anti-immigrant hostilities may have been another.

    • I never said the cartoons became less “ethnic” but rather that the animators did, and I had Isadore Freleng’s rechristening as “I. Freleng” in mind when I wrote that. You are correct that the Fleischer Studio incorporated immigrant ethnic humor into its work well into the sound era. My point was that ethnicity did not become a rallying cry for animators after cartoons from the 1920s like “The Wayward Dog.” The decline of the KKK to rally against may have been one reason, but the ability of immigrants and 2nd-generation folks to adapt to anti-Semitism and other anti-immigrant hostilities may have been another.

      That part of history is rather fascinating to me. I’m sure it all really build up inside every one of them into the 50′s and 60′s. This sort of bottled-up approach as I put it.

  • The Klan’s influence outside of its normal southern roots was probably at its highest in the 1920s, particularly around the election of 1928, when Al Smith became the first Catholic to run for president. Klan activities in the areas surrounding New York City were not uncommon, and given how many studios were still NY-based at the time and (as noted) how many people working for those studios would be KKK targets, it’s no shock they didn’t see it as a laughing matter.

    • I wonder if the ability to not give in was a coping mechanism that managed to make it all work without sabotage in the end? It’s always interesting to view history from an anthropological view.

  • “The Mirth of a Nation” was also a slogan used by MLJ Publishing in the earliest issues of Archie Comics.

  • Very interesting post, Christopher.

  • Where might the masked/hooded “wanna be a member” figures in Fleischer’s BIMBO’S INITIATION fit into all this?

    • I’m pretty sure Bimbo’s Initiation was specifically about the Illuminati and Fremasonry stuff rather than KKK. That cartoon remains awesomely creepy to this day.

    • I have no idea. The characters do not strike me as Klan-inspired, and I have not found any press coverage that connects the film’s imagery to the Klan. Then again, the organization would have been well past its first-revival peak by 1931, when BIMBO’S INITIATION was released.

    • There’s nothing wrong with Freemasons!

      On a side note, thinking of the ending to The Wayward Dog, it does strike me kinda odd how much it paralleled the sort of anti-capitalist films coming out of the Soviet Bloc years later. It’s never an entire group if they bother to set an example by killing off the one character who contributed little to the situation.

  • Animators didn’t produce pro-Klan propaganda because so many animators were first of second generation Americans? Likelier animators didn’t produce pro-Klan propaganda because few Klansmen had the money or the talent to go into animation!

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