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Forbidden Animation: A Valuable Contribution

Mark Langer reviews Karl Cohen's new book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, a catalogue of censorship.

Forbidden Animation by Karl Cohen.

To those of us of a certain age, the recent jeremiads issued by the Southern Baptist Convention against the Disney Company for it's alleged anti-Christian and pro-gay policies are nothing less than incredible. To this writer, the Magic Kingdom had always been the paradigm of family entertainment. On the bulletin board that hangs over my desk, I have a copy of the infamous drawing of an orgy featuring Disney characters that appeared in Paul Kastner's The Realist in the late 1960s. It's value in my eyes had always resided in the outrageousness of showing Mickey shooting up while Goofy and Minnie fornicate. Next to them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs indulge in sexual acts for which no specific descriptive terms have yet been invented. The cultural contradiction implicit in having characters embedded in Disney wholesomeness acting like members of the Manson family on an outing with Kesey's Merry Pranksters has made this image a classic of '60s counterculture.

Conservative elements today would see this not as parody, but as an indication of the moral squalor of the contemporary animation industry. Amazing numbers of the radical right apparently spend hours and days freeze-framing images from animated tapes and laser discs, searching for glimpses of spicy stuff. Michael Eisner and his minions from hell have been savaged by guardians of morality with the ferocity of a Chihuahua attacking a meatball. Meanwhile, others in the animation industry, from Beavis and Butt-head's Mike Judge to Pink Komkommer's Marv Newland, who might interpret this parody as a signpost for one of the directions to be taken by contemporary animators, have escaped relatively unaffected by controversy.

A Catalogue of Censorship

Those who call for a fatwah against the Great Satan of Burbank would be well advised to read Karl Cohen's Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. Cohen, an art historian and President of ASIFA-San Francisco, as well as editor of the ASIFA-San Francisco Newsletter, has spent several years researching these topics, motivated, in part, by the loss of family members' jobs forty years ago due to the FBI informing their employers that they had "questionable backgrounds." Therefore, it is not a surprise to find that Karl Cohen is a passionate advocate of free speech and open expression on both political and other subjects. It is this sentiment that holds together a book of wide-ranging topics.

Cohen separates his subject into five categories: censorship of theatrical animation, stereotypes in animation, uncensored animation, censoring animation on television, and blacklisted animators. In his chapter on censorship of theatrical animation, Cohen gives a chronological overview of censorship, focusing mostly on America, with glimpses of the situation in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. There is considerable entertainment value in the author's cataloguing of no-nos such as the nude pinups in Daffy the Commando(1943) and He Was Her Man(1937) that somehow managed to evade the censor's shears. More interestingly, Cohen examines standards of censorship in different jurisdictions, from the Production Code administered under Will Hays' Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, to the British Board of Censors. Cohen gives examples of the activities of various boards and points out the limits and contradictions in censorship systems. The author concludes that the censorship conducted for 34 years (1934-1968) under Hayes office at best "protected Americans from seeing a few cow udders and a few drunken animals, or hearing a few rude noises." At it's worst, it may have tamed the most extreme excesses of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. The Production Code itself became a source of humor in American animation. Cohen recalls such gags as the one in Clampett's A Tale of Two Kitties(1942) in which the cats Babbit and Catstello try to catch Tweety Bird. At one point Babbit says to his partner "Give me the bird, give me the bird!" Catstello answers, "If the Hays Office would only let me, I'd give him the bird all right!"

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. The Blacklist 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.

Although opposed to repression, Cohen is aware of the problems that may result with unfettered expression -- seen earlier in his sympathetic approach to those objecting to Song of the South. Cohen later asks, will freedom of expression be exercised mainly by those who can afford to make films supporting their points of view? Will the financial risks involved in film production result only in films that are acceptable to the widest possible audience? These are questions worth further study. Cohen's approach to the material is that of an empiricist. He appears either uninterested or unaware of theoretical literature that relates to censorship or systems of repression. Although Cohen usually works from the films themselves and from such primary documentation as oral histories, the Hays Office files, U.S. Congressional Committee hearings transcripts, he sometimes includes anecdotal material gained in conversations with researchers and enthusiasts as if it were fact. There are occasional minor inaccuracies, such as the dates of the establishment of British censorship categories, and far too many spelling errors, such as "dignified rolls" instead of "dignified roles." But these are minor complaints about a valuable contribution to the literature on animation, and a volume that will doubtlessly be gracing many of our bookshelves. Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, by Karl F. Cohen, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1997. 230 pages, illustrated. ISBN: 0-7864-0395-0. To order this book, call (in the U.S.) 800-253-2187

Mark Langer teaches film at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and a programmer of animation retrospectives.