Forbidden Animation: A Valuable Contribution
The Image of Racism
Cohen's chapter on racist images in animation is primarily devoted to the depiction of people of color. "When and why did animators stop making these films?" Cohen investigates both the actions of African-American publications and organizations such as the NAACP in making their displeasure with stereotypes in American animation known. The greater part of Cohen's investigation centers around the production and reception of Disney's Song of the South(1947). Based on Production Code Administration files, interviews with screenwriter Maurice Rapf and contemporary press reports, Cohen illustrates how Disney attempted to respond to pressure to modify his use of stereotypes in the film. Disney hired Rapf, a Jew and known Communist, to rewrite the script in the hope that Rapf's background qualified the screenwriter to avoid problems related to racism. Disagreements with Dalton Reymond, author of the original Uncle Remus treatment, led to Rapf's reassignment and several of the racist clichés were restored. Even if the film had been made according to his version, Rapf now feels that Song of the South was inherently racist, and should not have been made.
Rapf was preceded in this view by Walter White of the NAACP and June Blythe, director of the American Council on Race Relations, both of whom requested to see a treatment of the film when production was first announced. Actor Clarence Muse, one-time advisor to Disney on the portrayal of African-Americans in films, left the studio and campaigned actively against the production of the movie. The Production Code Administration contacted Disney repeatedly with suggestions to modify the script, and to "take counsel with some responsible Negro authorities concerning the overall acceptability...of this story." Some of the warnings were heeded. Most were not. Song of the South created a storm of protest upon it's release, but it's box-office success left Disney crying all the way to the bank.
Animation in the Buff
Cohen's chapter on uncensored animation examines the independent production of animated films produced without formal censorship. Here Cohen looks at more informal kinds of repression, such as the threat of lawsuits, distributors shelving films after public outrage at previews, cuts to films in order to avoid "X" ratings, etc. In one extreme example, footage of an experimental film made by Ben Van Meeder was sent by the film lab to the FBI because of concerns that the film was pornographic. I was particularly interested to read Cohen's multiple accounts of Ralph Bakshi's notorious screening of Coonskin(1974) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a member of the audience, my memories of the event offer yet another version of what has become the Rashomon of animation evenings -- no two accounts of what happened at that screening agree with each other. Regardless, Paramount executives were so disturbed by the near-riot at MoMA that the film was suppressed for years. A section of the chapter also deals with naughty bits inserted into animated films as gags by bored animators or people in the ink and paint department. Such jokes as Baby Herman committing an act too lewd to be recounted to readers of Animation World Magazine in Who Framed Roger Rabbit(1988) are gradually being eliminated from animated films as single-frame scrutiny on laser discs has evoked protests from those who enjoy making an issue out of such things.
Broadcast Standards and Practices
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Cohen's chapter on television, in which the reader is introduced to the arcane world of Broadcast Standards and Practices. Cohen's list of censorship standards used in the production of television animation is hilarious. Creators of The Smurfs had to avoid any association of their characters with magic in order to avoid allegations that the show promoted Satanism. Cohen's quotes from BS&P memos discussing "tastefulness" in regards to the depiction of snot ("we expect this to look clear and shiny rather than thick, green and disgusting") reveal the more surreal aspects of censorship.
Cohen's final chapter on blacklisted animators brings the book to a fairly grim conclusion. Although the author acknowledges that there is no way of knowing how many people lived in fear of being named by some informant, he does draw on oral histories and HUAC transcripts to detail the persecution of people for their political beliefs. Cohen rightly depicts the persecution of the 1950s as stemming in part from roots in the industry's labor action in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Image of Racism