Christopher P. Lehman
April 7, 2018 posted by Christopher Lehman

The Censored 11: “Angel Puss” (1944)

If my animation interviews of two decades ago were a fishing trip, then Chuck Jones would definitely be “the one that got away.” I wrote to him during my dissertation work to ask him about how Angel Puss–the director’s only Censored Eleven cartoon–came about. His daughter replied on his behalf to say that he would not reply to my letter. It was disappointing, because other artists like Jack Zander and Bill Littlejohn had replied to my questions about “Mammy Two-Shoes” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” But those are the breaks.

Angel Puss is distinct among the Eleven for other reasons besides Jones’s direction of it. It is the only “Looney Tunes” episode in the list. After 1943, all “Looney Tunes” were filmed in color, and Angel Puss was released in 1944. Also, this cartoon has no jazz celebrities or any of the Warner Bros. Cartoons major stars. The episode is unique among “Looney Tunes,” because it stars neither Porky Pig or Daffy Duck, at a time when nearly every episode between 1936 and 1944 stars either one of the characters or both. Finally, it is one of the last “Looney Tunes” produced before Leon Schlesinger retired from producing cartoons for Warner Brothers in 1944; thus, it is also Schlesinger’s last Censored Eleven film.

In Angel Puss, southern African American man Sambo who vaguely resembles Stepin Fetchit is tasked with drowning a cat. He is reluctant but does the job, or at least he thinks. The cat leads the man into thinking that it did drown, but it then disguises as a ghost and scares him for most of the film. When the man gets wise, he shoots the cat, and nine ghosts leave the cat’s body. The film is one of many in which Jones uses African or African American caricature. He had already made three cartoons starring an African boy named Inki (because of his dark skin, get it?), and another episode set in the South–Flop Goes the Weasel–depicts African Americans as birds.

Angel Puss brings the Censored Eleven into the era of stylization–the kind that the studio United Productions of America later implemented. When the cat scares the man, Sambo’s figure “pops” into bug-eyed takes. Sambo’s dashes away from the cat appear as linear smears. Jones had already started the pop-and-smear method with The Dover Boys, but he is able to use it to graphically modernize the old African American-scared-by-ghosts bit, which the studio had previously done in the Eleven episode Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujahland.

Eddie Selzer replaced Schlesinger as producer after Angel Puss was made, but Selzer caught the criticism from African Americans who protested the film’s original release in 1944. The Pittsburgh Courier complained that a theater showed the cartoon with a “tolerance” movie called Americans All. Selzer simply responded that he had nothing to do with the cartoon’s production. The newspaper still called for the film’s withdrawal anyway but to no avail. It was never a “Blue Ribbon” reissue, but it became part of the television syndication package through
United Artists in the 1950s.

Any Warner Brothers cartoon accused of ethnic insensitivity in 1944 was almost certain to appear among the Censored Eleven in 1968, and Angel Puss made the list indeed. Both Sambo and the cat have dialects, as when the cat says, “Us ain’t kiddin’.” Sambo’s “Get goin’, feet,” resembles Fetchit’s catchphrase, “Feet, don’t fail me now.” Sambo’s design includes large lips and half-closed eyes, except when his eyes enlarge upon fright. The appropriation of Fetchit for Sambo is curious, because by then Fetchit’s prime as a movie star had passed. In fact, when Angel Puss was released, he had not appeared in a movie in five years. Still, Fetchit’s demeanor had become iconic by 1944 and, therefore, fair game for animators to caricature. That caricature became the cartoon’s undoing almost a quarter-century later.

23 Comments

  • Pairing Chuck Jones with Lou Lilly was probably the all-time worst meshing of writer with director in Warner Bros. cartoon history (and this was the first cartoon to use the ‘Director’ credit, instead of ‘Supervision’). All of Lilly’s other credited cartoons were done for the Clampett unit, and in every single one a character ends up dead and/or buried at the end, which also tended to go with a contempt for the story’s ‘put-upon’ victim above what the other Warners’ writers produced.

    That’s not a problem, if the cartoon’s target is Adolf Hitler (“Russian Rhapsody”) but is if it’s a naive African-American boy paid to drown a smart-aleck cat.

    Chuck’s more gentle style just makes the disdain for the victim here even more painful, because Jones’ love of personality animation causes that disdain to play out in extended fashion, where a Clampett cartoon of the same period would throw a new gag at you every fives seconds, so if the last bit didn’t work out perfectly you were on to the next one in a hurry. The improved animation at the studio by 1944 (by which time the skill level and budgets were almost at their height) makes the problem even worse, and makes the cartoon far more annoying than most of the earlier musical efforts. No shock that Jones and his family didn’t want to talk about this one.

  • Racial jokes aside, this cartoon is of very questionable taste, centering as it is on animal abuse played for laughs. That may have been one of the reasons Jones didn’t want to talk about it.
    Interesting that Chuck’s Inki cartoons weren’t included on the Censored Eleven (which would make it the Censored Fifteen). Perhaps it’s the fact that Inki never talked, which probably lessened the stereotypical portrayal somewhat.

    • The fact that Jones did the Inki shorts makes his production of this short all the more intriguing. Until ‘Inki at the Circus’ (whose release was just around the corner) those shorts were arguably unique in that they didn’t seem to be taking any particular jabs at native African culture (aside from the caricatured appearance, of course). Inki is just a little boy attempting to do a man’s job. You could replace him with a boy of another nationality and most of the gags would still work thanks to the lack of dialogue and the focus eventually shifting to the mysterious Minah Bird.

  • It is a shame that Jones refused to talk about this short, because of all the Censored 11 this is potentially the most fascinating. The other shorts most fit into the standard musical, spoof, or ‘teach the protagonist a lesson’ templates, but this is something else entirely. The story is basically the fake death gag, seen in shorts like “Peck Up Your Troubles” or “The Heckling Hare” stretched out to fill the entire run time. It makes me wonder how stories sometimes got assigned to the units at Warner’s during this period. Did Jones actually choose this story for his unit, or was it thrust upon him in order to keep up the release schedule?

    The only positive thing I could offer about this short is Carl Stalling did his usual bang-up job for the opening title score, but the rest is a lot to take for 15 seconds of good music.

  • The layout, color, design, and posing in this cartoon is nothing short of brilliant. But who cares when you can say the same about “Tom Turk and Daffy” or “From Hand to Mouse” without feeling guilty about the racism/cruelty component? Oh well. At least it didn’t go to the Clampett unit as the rest of the Lou Lilly stories did, otherwise we’d have white men explaining to everyone else why the Scribner animation and jazzy music means no one has a right to be offended.

  • This is one of the very few Warner cartoons where absolutely nothing works. It’s mean-spirited, it’s slow, it’s boring, and not a single gag is funny.

  • I’m interested that this film was protested in its original release and received public unfavorable attention (again in its original release) for its racist content. Am I correct in assuming that this was not typical? I had always assumed (likely wrongly) that racist content in animated shorts wasn’t noted in a public way before television showings. Are there other examples of racism in animated shorts being protested or criticized in the press before the fifties?

    • Yes, this probably was also the reason why Mammy Two Shoes was progressively phased out once the 50’s came around. Being portrayed solely as a house maid speaking in stereotypcal southern accent would be too degrading, and not even the lack of a face to show would constitute a mitigating factor.

    • The newspaper PITTSBURGH COURIER and civil rights groups like the NAACP issued protests against this film, “Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs,” Famous Studios’s “Song of the Birds,” a reissue of “Sunday Go to Meeting Time,” a reissue of MGM’s “The Lonesome Mouse” (with the mammy caricature), a reissue of Walter Lantz’s “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat,” and a home-release of Ub Iwerks’s “Little Black Sambo.” These organizations started their campaigns during World War II and kept them going after the war. Most of the time, they failed to get the films withdrawn from the theaters, but they succeeded with the reissue of “Scrub Me Mama.”

    • Fascinating! Thank you!

  • At least it was short.

    • That’s a consolation.

  • A bit of trivia.
    You mentioned the Chuck Jones’ short “Flop Goes the Weasel.” It holds the all-time record in animation history of using the name ‘mammy.’

    Anyone who is reading this watch the cartoon and count for yourself. You will find that ‘mammy’ is said or written a whopping 37 times. Dang!

  • ANGEL PUSS was, I’m pretty sure, the last time Mel Blanc adopted that dreadful dialect he used for African-American characters. It was jarringly annoying when he used it five years earlier for the irritating Lantz character Li’l Eightball in SILLY SUPERSTITION and A HAUNTING WE WILL GO, and was patently his worst ever character voice. I agree, ANGEL PUSS does seem surprisingly late in the game for this type of Stepin Fetchit caricature.

  • Christopher, in your reply about civil rights groups protesting films, are you referring to Famous Studios’ 1935 “Song of the Birds,” or Famous Studios Little Audrey 1949 “Song of the Birds?” I’m thinking it must be the latter short because I don’t see anything racist about the former.

    • It’s the latter, because the maid’s appearance in that film was the objectionable content, according to the NAACP files.

  • Thanks. I think this is the first time I’ve seen Angel Puss all the way through. It is one of the worse, in my opinion, of the racist cartoons I have seen. With work like this from a favourite director there is always an internal struggle with me between the cringe-worthy stereotypes and the quality animation.

I believe Chuck Jones was categorically NOT a racist. If he ever had been, he was not the when the first time I saw him in person.

Keep in mind my story is 35 years ago and I cannot quote him verbatim but I was student at Sheridan College who decided to crash his visit to the summer international students in the summer of 1983. There came a point after screening his films and then students’ films, that we (students) sat around in a relaxed atmosphere and had less of a Q & A and more of a dialogue with Jones.
There was a student who kept asking Jones about Bob Clampett, making Jones bristle, asking him why Clampett was not included in the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Movie, etc. When asked about Coal Black, Jones was clearly skeptical about the story that Jazz musicians suggested to Clampett to make such a cartoon. I thought his explanation was emotionally honest & intelligent,he said that it was stereotyped and racist, that the reason Blacks were portrayed in such manner was because that was the way many in his white generation were raised to believe, that even in live action Blacks had to speak and act the way the way they did because they were directed to, further perpetuating the stereotypes.
For me, thing is, he wasn’t dismissive as many of that generation saying oh, everyone did ethnic humour. He saw it as something unfortunate and untrue.
In later years I couple this experience with the poignant chapter he wrote in one of his books about the other Mr. Jones, an homage to African American janitor who worked at Warner Bros.

I don’t remember Angel Puss mentioned, but if it was I may not have retained the memory because I’d never saw it and not known the reference.

It’s a pity he didn’t reply to your question. It would not have been hard to say it was an unfortunate choice, or that he was using a sad currency of humour of the day. I might surmise and conjecture that his family was savvy enough to fear any response may single-out Chuck Jones’ racist film.

    • I was going to add “in light of the viral nature of the internet”.

    • Thank you for your feedback and for your insight about Chuck Jones. I don’t think of Jones himself as racist. In fact, part of how I convinced others in animation to talk to me was to promise outright that I wouldn’t call them racist. What I tried to do was just to point out the fact that their work contained stereotypes and to find out the creative processes behind them. Sometimes just acknowledging the stereotypes created some defensiveness from the animators, but overall they were honest and open in discussing them. I would have approached Jones the same way as the others if given the chance.

  • Always considered this to be among Jones’ all time worst cartoons. I can’t even begin to explain all that is wrong with it. Only the animation spared it. It also feels like the story was forced upon him at gunpoint. I have a feeling he had been questioned about this one a few times before for animation buffs and was greatly embarrassed.

    Going a bit off topic. When did George Pal’s Jasper Puppetoons start coming under attack? I must admit that JASPER AND THE WATERMELONS is only bad because of… well… the watermelons. I guess one could argue that Caucasian kiddies were equally stereotyped for their addictions to surgery, fattening sweets that were far worse for their health than anything plucked from a garden. Just watch any Disney Silly Symphony or the Fleischers’ SOMEWHERE IN DREAMLAND. If it weren’t for his physical appearance (big lips included), Jasper wouldn’t have been so harshly viewed since his films are mild compared to the competition.

    Oh… I am not defending Pal. He is certainly guilty for the earlier PHILIPS BROADCAST OF 1938, SOUTH SEA SWEETHEARTS and HOOLA BOOLA. Yet, on the plus side, he did take the criticisms very seriously, but didn’t eliminate black characters all together like other cartoon producers. Too bad Disney, Warner, MGM or the others didn’t bother making a JOHN HENRY AND THE INKY POO and DATE WITH DUKE (with a live-action Ellington) to counter what came before. Then again, the Puppetoons only lasted two years after the war and you still had Mammy Two-Shoes and Little Audrey’s maid… if no other “representation”… until the post-UPA John Hubley era.

    • Sondra Gorney criticized Pal’s “Jasper” in her article “The Puppet and the Moppet” for the July 1946 issue of HOLLYWOOD QUARTERLY, and EBONY magazine followed shortly afterward with “Little Jasper Series Draws Protest from Negro Groups” in its January 1947 issue.

    • Jasper would be worth some interesting posts here even if he has been discussed before. Not enough titles available on YouTube for uploading here though.

  • I can only echo the viewpoints expressed here, overall, that this cartoon is cringe-worthy for more than just the racial stereotyping. I just never understood the amount of gag content in classic cartoons involving ditching a litter of kittens or puppies in the river but I guess, like cock fighting, it did happen a lot in those days…and, correct me if I’m wrong, but this cartoon is the first to actually use what is now considered a racial slur, the use of the name “Sambo”. It is a curious cartoon for all the reasons mentioned above, too, but to actually see the poor cat shot at the end is almost harrowing.

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