Dr. Toon: 1968: A Lost Connection
The Terry studio was gone by 1969, but its offerings for 1968 largely featured Sad Cat, a justifiably forgotten nebbish. Walter Lantz stayed in business until 1972 with nothing to say about the fracturing of his country. A 1971 Woody Woodpecker cartoon titled The Reluctant Recruit featured Woody Woodpecker attempting to escape the French Foreign Legion, This was not an analogy for draft resistors, unless one was smoking whatever Jerry Garcia was smoking. There were stirrings at Paramount, where Ralph Bakshi had begun to explore the counterculture in his cartoon shorts, but the studio was kaput by 1967.
TV in 1969 was not much better. Superheroes virtually disappeared from the Saturday morning scene, to be replaced by countless "hip" cartoons featuring rock bands, and I won't even bother to compare them to Jefferson Airplane or The Doors. Much the same for 1970. Colorful psychedelics were acceptable, but the specter of subversive rock was not. In fact, it was not until 1972 that Bill Cosby and the Filmation studio addressed race and socioeconomics with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. That same year Ralph Bakshi unleashed a horny tabby named Fritz on the big screen but by then the Vietnam War would bleed America for only one more year and Richard Nixon was well on the way to his historic disgrace.
So, what prevented animation from reflecting the cultural zeitgeist? As usual, complicated answers have no single explanation, but are rather found in a confluence of factors. For one thing, animation was never a rich source of political commentary in America, and thus no historical basis for statement existed. This is unusual, since the US did not have to deal with state ownership (and censorship) as many overseas animation companies did. The nation that prided itself on principles of free speech rarely used it in animation, largely because cartoons were used for entertainment. Perhaps John Hubley had the best chance of expressing political views in 1960s America, but he had already been bloodied by HUAC in the decade before. Thus, there was neither radicalism nor reactionary content in our cartoons.
If one was part of the machinery of TV studio animation during 1968-70, there was damn little time to protest the war, express racial solidarity or advocate for victory over the Viet Cong. Although many animators undoubtedly had preferences and would take to the streets for them, said animators were busy trying to meet crushing production schedules and footage quotas. Since the work was seasonal, the same animators were dealing with layoffs and ways to keep meals on their tables once a season of cartoons was completed. Their wealthier brethren in Hollywood had the time and comfort to practice chic radicalism or to defend Nixon and his presidency; animators struggled to keep themselves fed.
Eventually animators and their beleaguered unions fought bitter battles for residuals but lost the war in 1969-70; animation producers were able to exploit divisions between different job positions in the industry. Soon, animation would be farmed out to foreign markets, further weakening animator's positions and stunting the unions. One generally does not participate in, or find flaming passion for, activism when the wolf is halfway through the door.