viewed: 06/10/07 at the Roxie Cinema, SF, CA
I wasn’t really sure how to categorize this. Typically, my film diary is focused on feature films watched in full, and I certainly have watched my share of animation shorts over the period of time that I have been writing here, full video compilations of Warner Brothers, Tex Avery MGM, and Betty Boop among others. I really, really like animation, particularly pre-WWII animation. I find it an amazing expression of the culture and arts of the period, and though it quickly developed its own shorthand cliches and typicalities, the animation of the period is explosively radical and open, spewing imagery from the cultural Id.
Interestingly enough, that is really what this show, this collection of 10 Warner Brothers shorts primarily from the 1930’s-1940’s, just up til WWII, is completely comprised of. The films from this show have been suppressed or banned for various reasons, mostly due to racist imagery, sexism, or violence, though in one case, the film Let It Be Me (1936) directed by Friz Freleng was suppressed due to a lawsuit filed by Bing Crosby in regards to a caricature of him.
Of the 10 films, I’d only seen 2 or 3 of them before, the most notable highlights being Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), both by the brilliant director Robert Clampett, which in attempt to create a lively jazz-themed mania, end up creating some of the most outrageously tasteless Black stereotypes of the era. The films themselves are amazing, especially Coal Black, which is probably one of the most-appreciated yet rarely screened films of the Warner Brothers animation studio heydey.
Contemporary viewers regard these films typically with shock and revulsion to the ribald stereotypes (which are indeed quite incredible – they are ridiculous and ugly) and the suppression of these films is the corporation’s fear of lawsuits. And the uninitiated viewer might only be capable of being offended, especially when these films are not viewed within the understanding of their cultural context, not by any means justifying them, but recognizing that they express something that was existed, a mentality, a way of seeing, a sampling of the time, and that now they are an historical document perhaps of the American psyche (though certainly not all Americans).
They are also art in their own right, coming from the ripest period in Warner Brothers animation, by some of their most talented teams. Animation and cartoons from this period have common depictions of things that are not accepted today. I have often noted myself that some of these stereotypes are so outdated, that a child might not even see some of these characters as representative of things that they could recognize. If one was to make films with this level of caricature of cultures today, the images would be vastly different and would represent characteristics of our contemporary landscape. I’ve often wondered why Apu from The Simpsons has not taken more flak as a cultural stereotype.
Animation of this period in general is not screened frequently enough. There is a chaos and a lunacy that is deeply tapped into. It’s a form that played mainstream theaters alongside the major feature films of the day and typically were produced by large studios. To me, they seem to reach far beyond the mores and traditions that were being depicted at the time, they lean further into the landscape of the unconscious, bounding around with a breakneck pace and playing with many of the contemporary Modernist motifs that were in fashion in the visual arts. The fact that these films were popular media, while at the same time snapping out at the edges of the medium, speaks to why they carry so much cultural baggage of their era. But this is why they are richer still today in many ways. It’s a vantage point to look back into the cultural landscape and psyche of the time and of the America for which they were made.