Ah! The world of cartoons. Brings back some good ol’ memories, don’t they? They sure as hell don’t make ’em like they used too… No siree, Bob!
You’ve got to admit there’s something charismatic in those old 2-D hand-drawn cartoons compared to the stuff coming out in the name of animation nowadays.
But most of us only remember as far back as the ’90s and ’80s. Turn the clocks further behind and you will be amazed by how different some of our favorite cartoons were. A dark past is hidden behind those innocent, lovable smiles.
Before we go ahead, I do feel it necessary to tell you that those were “different” times. And as they say, art mimics real life.
They may be from the Stone Age era, but the Flintstones and their neighbour the Rubbles rocked the 1960s. The show was the most financially successful network animated series for three decades before the arrival of the Simpsons.
During the 1960s, it was usual for characters of TV shows to promote products of their sponsors through integrated commercials. Guess who the Flintstones was promoting…
The Flintstones Winston Cigarette Commercial
But it’s not like the Flintstones were the only cartoon characters shown smoking. A number of cartoon characters have been shown smoking cigars or cigarettes in various situations.
To impress a girl:
To look real cool like:
To stay awake:
To impress a girl:
Or right! I said that already…
Like I said, those were different times. Tobacco advertising was legal in the U.S. before the 1970s and not much was known about the hazards of smoking during that time.
After the end of the first two seasons of the Flintstones, Winston pulled out from sponsorship. Ironically, the Flintstones later went on to do a PSA for the American Cancer Society (1968) after ending their association with Winston cigarettes.
I guess once the issues of smoking became more clearer to the real world, a lot of things changed in the cartoon world too.
Disney did a 1951 short film on the effects of smoking with Goofy (Paying for Mickey’s mistakes?):
So I guess that’s all… right?
Flintstones Promotes Busch Beer… D’oh!
Yes, they did that too…
In 1967, the Flintstones did a mini episode for the beer brand Anheuser Busch. From what I’ve read, this was specially made for the beer brand’s distributors and retailers.
Part 1 of the advertisement
Part 2 of the advertisement
Again, the Flintstones is not the only cartoon to show drinking of alcohol, and also not the only cartoon promoting an actual alcoholic beverage.
Meet Mr. Magoo
The short, near-sighted Mr. Quincy Magoo has won two Oscars for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). Mr. Magoo found his way to the TV screen in the 1960s and has done a list of commercials for General Electric and others.
But the ones to be listed here are Mr. Magoo’s advertisements for Stag Brew.
And he’s a regular at it…
One more for the road…
Recognize him? Yep, he’s the same mouse from above
So, did the animated world ever do something to show the dangers of drinking? A Public Service Announcement maybe?
Yes, they did only… it got banned as well.
One Beer (Tiny Toons)
Aired in 1991, in this episode of Tiny Toons, Buster, Plucky and Hamton come across a “cold one” in the fridge and decide to try it out. Suddenly, in one beer bottle, which seems to have a never-ending supply of brewski, the trio turn into belching, smelling, puking homeless bums. Then, like every person who has ever gotten drunk knows… you just have to steal a police car. The trio ride the police car all the way to the top of a mountain, and then drive off a cliff…
And then they die…
Yep, they DIE!
Well, not really… check out the episode here.
The 30s, 40s And 50s
So far, we’ve covered famous cartoon characters promoting smoking and alcohol. But when we turn the clocks a little further behind, things start to get more controversial.
Now, of course during the course of these three decades the world was occupied with really pressing matters like a Second World War (1939-1945), with America fighting the Nazis and Japan. Also, there were rampant racial issues everywhere.
So many WWII propaganda cartoons from that era portrayed the public sentiment at that time. It is also important to know that most of these cartoons were made for adults.
Eh… What’s Up Doc?
He is the Don Corleone of the Looney Tunes Universe and one of the most popular characters ever. He is everybody’s favorite anthropomorphic “wascally wabbit”.
But the carrot chewing Bugs Bunny is no stranger to controversy. Racial sensitivity is not Bugsy’s strong point.
Bugs Bunny In Southern Fried Rabbit
Starring Yosemite Sam as a Civil War-era colonel, this animated short was released in 1953. In search of carrots, Bugs Bunny makes his way to Alabama, but he is prevented from crossing the Mason-Dixon line by Yosemite Sam. What follows is a series of antics to outsmart Yosemite and ends with Bugs Bunny winning, of course.
In the course of the cartoon, Bugs Bunny disguises himself as a banjo playing slave, singing “My Old Kentucky Home”. When asked to play something more peppy, Bugs Bunny starts singing “Yankee Doodle”. Yosemite calls him a traitor and threatens him with his sword. That’s when Bugs Bunny forces a whip into Yosemite’s hand, and starts pleading and crawling on the ground, saying, “Don’t beat me ‘massa’, please don’t beat me.”
That portrayal is what got this cartoon in hot soup.
Bugs Bunny Sells War Bonds
Bugs Bunny also starred in a 1942 animated propaganda film promoting the purchase of war bonds in an effort to finance the war.
Popularly known as “Any Bonds Today?”, the promo was controversial for a 15-second scene where Bugs Bunny is shown with a black face singing to Uncle Sammy, depicting ethnic stereotype.
Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips
Released in 1944, this short cartoon depicts how the U.S. viewed one of its enemies, Japan, during WWII. Aimlessly floating around in the sea, Bugs Bunny finally reaches the shores of an island and is met by hostile Japanese soldiers.
The cartoon is typical of what you can expect from any Bugs Bunny cartoon. He comes in, throws some “Eh… what’s up docs?” around, outsmarts his rivals, and calls it a day. But what differs here is the enemy is not a fictional individual, like say Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, but the Japanese.
Bugs Bunny uses racial slurs, including “slant eyes”, “monkey face” and “bowlegs”, to demean them. Even the title of the cartoon is a play on the word “nip” or bite and “Nips” which was a racial slur used at that time. The cartoon was much later pulled out of distribution.
However, Bugs Bunny wasn’t the only character enlisted to make cartoons against the Japanese during WWII.
Pop An Eye At This
Originally a comic strip character, Popeye appeared first in 1929. The spinach loving sailor man was later adapted into cartoon shorts in the 1930s.
Popeye’s popularity helped boost spinach sales. In fact, a 2010 study found that children increased consumption of vegetables after watching Popeye’s cartoons.
You’re A Sap, Mr. Jap
A 1942 animated cartoon short, You’re A Sap, Mr. Jap is one of the best known WWII propaganda cartoons. It was kept out of commercial distribution due to the racial caricaturing of the Japanese.
The cartoon shows Popeye defeating the crew of a Japanese battleship and portrays them as “double crossing japansies”. The animated short concludes with the Japanese naval commander committing suicide by swallowing gasoline and firecrackers.
So, what about the Nazis?
Created in 1934, the temperamental, anthropomorphic white duck is one of Disney’s most popular characters. No WWII list of cartoons can be complete without the Nazis. And Disney enlisted Donald Duck for it.
In Der Fuehrer’s Face
Originally titled Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, Der Fuehrer’s Face was released in 1943 and had won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
The cartoon shows Donald Duck in a nightmare sequence as a reluctant Nazi worker who is made to work for hours at end with non-existent food and under constant threat. It also pokes fun at Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Hideki Tōjō, Hermann Göring and Benito Mussolini. The short film ends with Donald Duck waking up to the realization that he is in the United States, breathing a sigh of relief.
The propaganda movie was kept out of circulation because of the depiction of Donald Duck as a Nazi.
Daffy Duck – The Commando
Daffy Duck, usually depicted as the arch rival of Bugs Bunny, emerged in the late 1930s.
This 1943 cartoon was one of many WWII themed shorts to come out from Warner Bros. This animated short shows Daffy as an American soldier parachuting down to German soil. And what ensues is a cat and mouse chase between Daffy and the German commander, Von Vulture, who is furious about American commandos entering Germany.
Von Vulture is shown receiving a telegram, threatening him if he allows one more soldier into Germany. On the telegram, there a three ape caricatures of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. The last of one is crossed out.
The cartoon concludes with Daffy clobbering Hitler on the head with a mallet. The short film was withheld from broadcast or distribution after the war.
Racism In Cartoons
Besides political propaganda, a number of cartoons between the 1930s to 1950s had offensive racial stereotypes like the ones in which Bugs Bunny is shown above.
One of Bugs Bunny’s cartoon films, All This And Rabbit Stew, was found offensive enough to be added in the Censored Eleven.
The Censored Eleven
The “Censored Eleven” is a group of eleven Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that have been pulled from broadcast due to the use of ethnic stereotypes that were deemed offensive. These cartoon shorts have not been officially broadcast on television since 1968 and have only been exhibited once theatrically by Warner Bros in Spring 2010.
The Censored Eleven are: (click on the names to watch the videos)
- Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land (1931)
- Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (1936, 1944)
- Clean Pastures (1937)
- Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937)
- Jungle Jitters (1938)
- The Isle of Pingo Pongo (1938, 1944)
- All This and Rabbit Stew (1941) (Bugs Bunny starrer)
- Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)
- Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943)
- Angel Puss (1944)
- Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944, 1951)
Alright, so we’ve covered alcohol, smoking, political propaganda and racism in cartoons.
For my finale, I’m going to list out three cartoons that may not have been so controversial to be banned, but there was something really wrong inside the heads of the animators when they made them.
Bimbo’s Initiation (1931)
Bimbo is a cartoon dog who made his first appearance in 1930. Bimbo’s Initiation is a weird cartoon by any standard. It starts out with Bimbo walking down the road and then falling down a manhole. He comes across a creepy cult-like group that asks him to join them with a weird rhyme, “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?”
Bimbo refuses and is subjected to torture from being poked in the behind by a sword to almost being crushed by a spiked anvil sort of thing, from being spooked by a skeleton to being punched in the face, and from being slapped on the butt by cycle paddle to almost being sliced by axes.
Each time he refuses to be a member, Bimbo’s torture keeps growing. And then there’s Betty Boop who brings in sexuality to the cartoon with her dancing about and slapping her butt.
Sex and torture… it’s sort of like watching the 1930s cartoon version of 50 Shades of Grey.
The weird thing is… it’s Mickey Mouse who comes smiling in to lock the manhole after Bimbo falls in. I guess there’s a more dark side to Mickey.
The Little Pest (1931)
Scrappy is a character created in the 1930s and is often seen going on off-beat neighborhood adventures. This cartoon includes Scrappy’s little brother Oopy.
In this animated short, Scrappy is seen going on a fishing trip with his dog. His little brother insists on following them along.
Angry about this, Scrappy is shown being abusive to his little brother to the point of slapping him around. He strips the little guy naked and leaves him in the forest. And eventually even tries to let Oopy drown. In fact, the only reason he even saves his brother from drowning is because he doesn’t want the electric chair.
Scrappy has some real psychological problems in this cartoon.
Blue Cat Blues (1956)
Now, here are two cartoon characters that need no introduction, Tom and Jerry. Everybody’s favorite cat and mouse.
So why are they on this list of dark cartoons. Well, besides the insane amount of violence these two inflict on each other, this particularly cartoon, Blue Cat Blues, had a dark ending to this lovable duo.
If you’ve read from the start of this article, especially the part about One Beer from Tiny Toons, you’ll know audiences don’t take too kindly to cartoon characters being killed.
So, imagine how you’d feel if your two childhood favorite characters got depressed to the point of committing suicide. That takes a whole twist of darkness.
And that’s exactly what happens in this cartoon. Tom and Jerry get dumped by girls who they’ve been courting, and in the end sit down on the middle of the train tracks waiting for the train to run them over.
And on that note, it’s time to bid adieu.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Let me know what you thought about it or if you learnt something new about your favorite cartoon characters. Leave a comment below.
Until next time!