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Banned War-Era ‘Bugs Bunny’ Films to Be Shown ‘in Context’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What’s up, doc?

Less than two months ago, the AOL Time Warner-owned Cartoon Network kicked up controversy over its decision not to show 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons considered to be too racially and politically charged as part of an otherwise-complete Bugs Bunny marathon. Now, the cable network is preparing to show at least parts of most of these “banned Bugs” cartoons in two upcoming specials to be seen in the evening and aimed at adults.

The first of these specials, “The Wartime Cartoons,’ premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. One cartoon cut from the “June Bugs” marathon, “Herr Meets Hare,” is included in its entirety in “Wartime.” Another, “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips,” is shown in partial clips, along with the Popeye cartoon “Scrap the Japs.”

“We were able to get away with showing these cartoons and clips because we’re showing them in context,” said Jerry Beck, co-writer of “Wartime” and author of a number of books about classic animation. “With all the attention given to Pearl Harbor now, you can see the kind of feelings that people had at the time after the bombing--I think that, and the way we explain different things like references to wartime rationing, made it possible to do this.”

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Indeed, “Wartime” goes to great lengths to decry racial stereotyping. “The cartoon medium allowed artists to caricature the enemy in outrageous ways. Stereotypes were established to quickly differentiate between the Allies and the Axis powers,” the narrator states about halfway through “Wartime.” Over scenes from “Tokio Jokio” showing buck-toothed, bespectacled Japanese soldiers, the narrator intones, “Japanese stereotypes were particularly cruel. In these uncensored scenes--the Japanese were not portrayed fairly or accurately.”

It’s harder to see why other cartoons were considered too controversial for daytime viewing. “Herr Meets Hare” is relatively innocuous, other than featuring a fat, bumbling Nazi and a brief appearance by a buffoonish Hitler at the end. But animation writers say Nazis have long been banned from kids’ cartoons, even as villains.

“We only had to take out one line, that was Japanese related,” Beck says of dealing with Cartoon Network brass. “In one scene in the Popeye cartoon ‘Scrap the Japs,’ Popeye says, ‘I’ve never seen a Jap that wasn’t yellow.’ Other than that, the network was very supportive of the entire show.”

“With ‘June Bugs’ (the marathon of nearly all Bugs Bunny cartoons), we were running cartoons in their entirety with only minor explanations,” said Mike Lazzo, programming chief for the Cartoon Network. “We think it’s a far better approach with these cartoons to have lengthy explanations. The only way you can truly do this is in a documentary sense.”

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The special is part of the network’s long-running “Toonheads” series aimed at the one-third of Cartoon Network’s audience that is over the age of 18. Cartoon Network already has another special in the works, “The Twelve Missing Hares,” focusing exclusively on those 12 cartoons that were barred from the “June Bugs” marathon. It’s expected to air in the fall.

Lazzo said the appearance of these specials now has more to do with the network having more money to spend on programming than with changing political sensitivities. “We always knew we wanted to do things like this,” Lazzo said, “But we didn’t have much money to spend on specific demographic groups such as adult viewers and cartoon buffs. Now, at almost 10 years old, we have more flexibility. We can address these audiences.”

Lazzo claimed he welcomed the heated debate that came with the network’s last-minute decision not to air the 12 controversial cartoons as part of its recent Bugs Bunny marathon.

Media outlets came down on both sides of the issue regarding the network’s decision to bar the 12 Bugs Bunny cartoons. TV Guide said executives did the right thing by pulling cartoons with racial stereotypes that “left TV Guide’s editors cringing.” A columnist for the Seattle Times, meanwhile, accused Cartoon Network parent AOL Time Warner of only being concerned with the bottom line, rather than being “socially aware.” “This is about protecting a prized asset [Bugs Bunny] whose image on merchandise brings in millions,” the columnist wrote.

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The debate also raged on online message boards devoted to animation. On AnimationNation.com, a site for professional animators, the topic inspired dozens of impassioned postings. “Let’s not attempt to rewrite history, and let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Eliminating these films will not make racism disappear,” posited one member. “It is easy to defend these kinds of films as history, especially when your race isn’t the target of the humor,” insisted another.

“I love the debate,” Lazzo said. “I thought it was interesting and fascinating. In the end, I think we did the exact right thing, and I think most people agreed with us.” Lazzo added that the network also plans to put out these specials on video in the future, as it has with other programming.

Filmmaker Beck has long been a proponent of making all the old cartoons available. The guide to Warner Bros. cartoons that he co-authored, “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons,” unflinchingly describes such cartoons as “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” a long-out-of-circulation 1943 blackface parody of Disney’s “Snow White” (and you thought Disney’s rivalry with DreamWorks was nasty).

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But he is also quick to call the stereotypes in cartoons such as “Tokio Jokio” tasteless. “My dream--and it’s not unrealistic--is to move the classic cartoons that were made for theaters, including Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Superman and the Looney Tunes, to a different category,” Beck said. “We have 50 years of TV animation now, and people have come to perceive cartoons as kid fodder. The old cartoons don’t have to be lumped in with that. They should be in the same league with ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Citizen Kane.’ They can run ‘The Jazz Singer’ on TV. They run ‘Babes on Broadway’ with Mickey and Judy in blackface. Why can’t we see the old cartoons for what they are too?”

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* “The Wartime Cartoons” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Cartoon Network. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


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