In 1956 the company Associated Artists Productions (AAP) purchased the library of Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies cartoons produced to 1948 and Looney Tunes cartoons made between 1943 to 1948–a total of 337 short films. AAP immediately offered the cartoons for television syndication, and in 1957 they made their debut on local stations nationwide. African and African American characters appear in eleven of the 337 films as the main characters (not counting the Inki series), depicted largely as nearly-naked African natives, antebellum southern slaves, and northern jazz-lovers.
African Americans protested the theatrical circulation of some of these cartoons upon their original releases, and television networks refused to show similar cartoons from other studios. However, syndicated television depended on the standards of individual stations instead of one national network, and many stations had no qualms about airing the eleven cartoons.
The motion picture studio United Artists (UA) acquired AAP in 1957 and kept all 337 cartoons in syndication. UA kept the cartoons after the Transamerica Corporation purchased the studio in 1967. The following year, Transamerica combined UAs separate television production and television distribution units, and UA withdrew the aforementioned eleven cartoons from circulation. The removal was part of a wave of programming changes in television in 1968–the year of the federal governments declaration that the United States was becoming two societies, black and white, separate and unequal and the year of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.s assassination. Scripted television programs added African American supporting characters, and one new show (the sitcom Julia) starred an African American woman in a leading role as a nurse instead of a domestic servant.
On a monthly basis, I will examine each of the withdrawn Warner Brothers cartoons–collectively known as the “Censored 11” — and discuss the content that likely led UA to pull the films from syndication.
Collectively speaking, the Censored 11 outlived the times, highlighting outdated characterizations that culturally reinforced segregation in a new era of federally mandated integration. I intend to distinguish each films timeless aspects from its ethnically dated aspects.
First on the list is Hittin the Trail for Hallelujah Land–a Merrie Melodies episode from 1931. It is the only cartoon from the Harman-Ising Studio among the Censored 11 and the oldest cartoon on the list. This film gives a hint of how Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising diverge in caricaturing African Americans. Harman worked with jazz scores and fashioned his Looney Tunes star Bosko as a blackface crooner of contemporary music; later at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), he directed cartoons featuring caricatures of African American jazz artists. Ising, in contrast, handled cartoons
set in the antebellum South. Hittin is the first, but later at MGM he directed The Old Plantation.
But back to Hittin, it is very understated in its depiction of the antebellum South. No one specifically mentions slavery, and no dialogue or scenes refer to a southern location. The river and the riverboat are not identified as the Mississippi River and a Mississippi showboat.
In terms of character design, the pigs Piggy and Fluffy, the wagon driver, and the singers opening the film all have jet-black skin.
Sound, by and large, sets up the antebellum setting. Fluffy and the singing ghosts in the graveyard refer to the driver as Uncle Tom, and the drivers namesake is a fictional slave of Harriet Beecher Stowes antebellum novel Uncle Toms Cabin.
Throughout the book Uncle Tom lives in slavery in the South. Thus, any reference to Uncle Tom in cartoons is a reference to a slave. So it is with Hittin, but Uncle Tom demonstrates his service by driving Fluffy in the wagon. The minstrel song Camptown Ladies not only musically shapes the setting but contributes to Uncle Toms ethnic depiction when he alone sings the song. Sound also constructs his ethnicity when he says, Holy mackerel–a catchphrase from fictional African American character Andy Brown of the contemporary radio sitcom Amos n Andy.
Visually, Uncle Tom and the opening singers resemble African American caricatures of the era. Although Piggy and Fluffy have jet-black skin, their white snouts define them as pigs and, therefore, not African American slaves. The fine clothing of the pigs identify them as free, in contrast to the ragged clothing of Uncle
Tom and the singers. In addition, the ethnic stereotype of fear of ghosts in a graveyard comprises part of Uncle Toms ethnicity, and Ising made ample use of Uncle Toms bugged eyes for that scene.
Civil rights groups had not yet organized campaigns against cartoons in 1931, and I have not found evidence that they tried to get Hittin out of theatres. However, movie studios had long abandoned the practice of portraying slaves as happy, singing laborers by 1968.
Hittin definitely contains this gross caricature of the peculiar institution, and likely for that reason UA included it in the Censored 11.