Dr. Toon takes a look at the new Looney Tunes box set for the improvements over the first Golden Collection and what the future may behold for the more non-PC shorts on DVD.
The holiday season once again approaches and hundreds of furtive purchases are being made on behalf of the worlds animation fans. The usual panoply of boxed DVD sets is now hitting the shelves, soon to be removed by savvy gift-givers and stashed away in hiding places until paper, ribbons and bows disguise their countless joys. (This scenario applies only to those who began their holiday shopping early. Yes, all three of you.) One of the DVD extravaganzas certain to be eagerly opened in homes across the country is The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2.
This four-disc follow-up to last years prized entry will contain 60 shorts (four more than the last set) and some attractive featurettes including a spotlight on Bob Clampett. Among the bonus shorts included is a 2004 entry, Daffy Duck for President. Since the set goes on sale Nov. 2, 2004, this cartoon may be of immense benefit to undecided voters during that week.
The press release promises that all films will be beautifully restored and re-mastered to their original, uncut presentation. Disc One spotlights Bugs Bunny, Disc Two offers the Road Runner and Coyote, Disc Three features Tweety and Sylvester, and the final disc takes more of the grab-bag approach seen on last years set. LTGC Vol. 1 took some heat last year for not including many favorite and famous cartoons, but the new volume seems to include many of them.
Films such as Whats Opera Doc (1957), Porky in Wackyland (1938), The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), The Dover Boys (1942), and, yes, One Froggy Evening (1955) appear in this set. According to animation historian/author Jerry Beck, who was instrumental in selecting the shorts seen in the set, original beginning and ending titles have even been found. Many of them have gone unseen for years.
I am not in the employ of Warners nor am I attempting to shill for this collection; the above description simply happens to be factual. If these beloved shorts are included and are indeed restored to perfection, this may well be an adequate response to some of fandoms gripes about LTGC Vol. 1. However, not everyone will be satisfied, nor will some aficionados cease in their complaints. The focus this time appears to be a matter of what has been excluded rather than included. This same issue has been tugging at the edges of animation for several decades, a conundrum that will not die and is unlikely ever to find resolution in our present society.
Will Warners politically incorrect cartoons featuring the depiction of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans and Asian Americans ever find their way to future Golden Collections?
This controversy is certainly not new; Cartoon Network faced it a few years back during their annual June Bugs marathon, and ultimately shrank back from airing any cartoons featuring racially sensitive material. Many of these cartoons remain unavailable and unseen and there is a strong contingent of viewers who see this state of affairs as inequitable. As a lifelong animation fan, I share their concerns to a degree. I find censorship deplorable. The fact that adult animation fans cannot view certain cartoons is a farcical concept. The offensive cartoons are a product of the age in which they were made; animations humor was originally derived from vaudeville, the minstrel show, and other common entertainment.
Racism was an inherent part of that humor, and ethnic and racial stereotypes persisted into the ages of film, radio and even the early days of television. It has long been my position that these cartoons could be shown if appropriate disclaimers and/or explanations for the content were added to the viewing experience. If that sounds to some like of a variant of PC, it is still a better alternative than suppression and censorship. The majority of these cartoons would prove to be much ado about nothing in any case. I have seen virtually every politically incorrect cartoon that Warner has produced and few of them are appreciably better or worse than the studios acceptable fare. In the case of the Bosko cartoons, they are considerably below that standard and are far more boring than offensive.
There is one particular cartoon in question that is the frequent subject of Internet and popular chatter concerning LTGCs past and future. That would be Bob Clampetts 1943 short, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, which does not fall into the category described above. Coal Black is a lightning rod, a cause célèbre, and the centerpiece of arguments for and against censorship of racially sensitive cartoons. It is arguably the capstone of Bob Clampetts career as a director, and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest cartoons ever made. It is also castigated as one of the most racist. This much maligned/much admired short does (if one looks strictly to history as an arbiter) belong in LTGC Vol. 1 or a future volume of LTGC, but at present the chances look slim indeed.
This presents an interesting dilemma for Warner Home Video. If the LTGC project rolls on and Warners continues to package four-disc sets of its 1,300-plus cartoons, fans will continue to look for Coal Black and other notable omissions. As I have stated in past columns, the sophistication and knowledge base of even casual animation fans is growing at a steady pace. That fact is one of the reasons that LTGC Vol. 1 met with a number of gripes concerning omissions, restoration quality, cover art, etc., even though it was the start of a project unparalleled since the heyday of laserdiscs. As the volumes roll on and certain cartoons are omitted for content, completists are certainly going to start calling for them.
One can envision scenarios where Warner Home Video is forced to either omit these shorts entirely and cease the project after a certain number of volumes, or to finally release them all in one set since they were not deemed acceptable for inclusion in earlier volumes. In the first case some fans will be unsatisfied and bitter due to not getting a complete collection while other fans will accuse Warners of stooping to censorship. In the second case Warner Home Video would be releasing the cultural equivalent of weapons of mass destruction. The company, intending to give fans an animated extravaganza from their archives, may have unwittingly started down a path that would eventually be lined with wolves on both sides.
There are a number of ways that the unpleasantness could be avoided, possibly to everyones satisfaction, but it involves effort and risk on the part of both dedicated animation fans and the powers that be at Warner Home Video.
One complaint voiced by animation scholar Jerry Beck is the lamentable fact that Hollywood executives and television programmers see classic cartoons as childrens fare rather than priceless pieces of cinematic history. I try to convince all the companies that I talk to that these are not just old cartoons, related Beck in a recent conversation with this writer. Cartoons `equal sign Kids; thats the way all Hollywood sees animation, and TV programmers look at classic cartoons as the equivalent of kids shows old kids shows. To them, Looney Tunes or Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, Casper thats just not something you run for kids today. The classic cartoons at the studios, Beck noted, are not part of the regular library of films. Theyre under the Family Home Entertainment department. Those cartoons are seen as not being on trend like The Powerpuff Girls or SpongeBob SquarePants. We need people in general to think of these classic cartoons as classic film.
This is indeed a good starting point for Warner Home Video. Should a sea change in attitude toward the Looney Tunes library occur at the highest corporate levels, perhaps the door might open for previously banned cartoons. If the Looney Tunes collections were perceived as serious fare for mature adult film buffs, they could be marketed as such. There is, after all, a great deal of difference in marketing and showing Cleaner Pastures, Coal Black or Uncle Toms Cabana to unprepared elementary school children and in making them available to adults.
One way this could be guaranteed is to package the banned shorts as a separate supplement to the LTGC and make this addendum available through direct order from the company. Another route might be to intersperse them with the other cartoons in future anthologies along with knowledgeable disclaimers by the esteemed Mr. Beck and other respected commentators.
Historians and animation scholars have performed similar tasks successfully, and this practice tends to imply that more sophisticated audiences are being addressed. Disney DVD enlisted Leonard Maltin to explain Mickeys miscreant tendencies for their 2002 Disney Treasures release of Mickey Mouse in Black and White, and Maltin did a credible job of navigating the differences between past and present entertainment.These may not be perfect solutions: Immature or racist adults still may purchase these cartoons for the purpose of finding them risible and even responsible adults may possibly show them in an irresponsible manner. Nothing can be guaranteed despite Warners best intentions, but this is still a better alternative than eternal censorship or the pretense that such cartoons have never existed.
As for cartoon fans that want to see and own Coal Black, Tin Pan Alley Cats or Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, remember that we live in a free-market economy in which consumer response dictates production. Nowhere is this dictum more valid than in entertainment. If fans who want to see banned cartoons are satisfied with hunting down poor quality bootleg copies through the dingiest alleys of the Internet, they are welcome to this recourse; they are all out there if one knows where to look. A better alternative might be to cease discussing the matter in Web forums, chat rooms and blogs and take the matter directly to Warner Home Video in the form of well-crafted and knowledgeable demands that previously banned cartoons be considered for inclusion in future releases of LTGC.
Earlier this year Warner Home Video released the 1944 classic, To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. As a bonus they included Bob Clampetts 1945 cartoon, Bacall to Arms. At the conclusion of this short, Humphrey Bogart puffs an exploding cigarette that leaves him in blackface. His closing line is then spoken in the voice of Jack Bennys servant Rochester. According to sources, a single letter of complaint found its way to the president of Warner Bros. and this is why cartoons with questionable content have not been considered for LTGC to this point in time.
If this is the power of one letter, what might the power of thousands of emails, letters and other communications accomplish? There is no way of knowing if Warner Home Video would immediately comply, but the demand for these cartoons will have been well established, and more importantly, submitted by a legion of animation fans who view these shorts on the same terms as equally guilty live-action classics. As adults asking for adult entertainment, they may be difficult to deny.
The key for both sides is responsibility. Warners would need to invest in disclaimers or make the cartoons available through more indirect means than the shelves of Wal-Mart. Animation fans and completists need to make a concerted, mature plea to have Warners consider these as classic films, not just old cartoons, and release them accordingly. The LTGC is, in truth, a wonderful idea, and as the Looney Tunes continue to disappear, even from cable programming, the project is more important than ever. Even those shorts that are politically incorrect in part or whole by todays standards have a place in history. If everyone can simply agree on the terms, they do not have to disappear for all time.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.