This year marks the seventieth anniversary of a significant milestone in ethnic imaging in animation. In 1949 Universal Pictures withdrew its reissue of Walter Lantz’s cartoon Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat from distribution. It was no small accomplishment. The film had been in theaters for months, and Universal stood to lose money from pulling the film. However, civil rights groups had complained of the African American stereotypes in the cartoon, and their pressure on Universal ultimately led to the withdrawal of the film.
At the time Universal did not have an active animation studio and could only redistribute its old cartoons. Lantz had severed his ties to the company, and in 1947 he began a brief arrangement of cartoon production for United Artists. Universal chose to reissue cartoons whose original releases had won over audiences, and Scrub Me Mama was one of those films when it first arrived in theaters in 1941. The film depicts southern African Americans in fictional Lazytown. While women work as laundresses, men either sleep or perform actions with exaggerated lethargy. They become energized when a light-skinned woman from Harlem drops by from a riverboat and shows the laundresses how to scrub with rhythm–thus, the title of the film.
Back in 1941 activists had not organized campaigns to get cartoons pulled from theaters, and they made no effort to target Scrub Me Mama then. By the fall of 1948, however, World War II came and went, and in that time civil rights groups began decrying films that grossly stereotyped African Americans as giving propaganda to the enemy. After the war, organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argued that such films were harmful for children; the NAACP’s later work in the Brown v. Board case showed how stereotypes became ingrained in children at very young ages. Meanwhile, animation producers met with some activists as early as 1944 and agreed to tone down the content. So, in 1948, a reissue of a broad-humored cartoon from before the war stuck out among civil rights groups like a sore thumb.
The NAACP wrote to Universal to request the film’s withdrawal, but the distributor refused. A public relations official offered several reasons for keeping the film in theaters. The cartoon was too popular and had never generated complaints before, it was typical of ethnic imaging from Hollywood, and it could result in other films and film projects disappearing and therefore give African American actors less work. The last reason was a sore spot for groups like the NAACP, because some African American actors publicly complained about the organization’s campaigns against radio and television shows that employed them to play the comical roles.
After months of fruitlessness, the NAACP asked fellow civil rights group the Jewish Labor Committee to communicate with Universal about the cartoon. The organization did, and only then–in February 1949–did Universal pull Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat. Other campaigns against cartoons followed, and some were more successful than others. My book, The Colored Cartoon, chronicles those efforts in detail.