Advocates of better television for children are outraged -- and with reason. Local television programmers across the country have tried to duck their responsibilities under the federal Children's Television Act by palming off such animated piffle as "The Jetsons" and "GI Joe" as "educational" shows for youngsters.
Yet the anger of children's television activists ought not to be aimed at animated cartoons, per se, since cartoons -- at least the witty, high-quality little masterpieces from animation's golden age -- indeed can be educational. They are lively, wonderful six-minute time capsules, often full of allusions to the personalities, preoccupations and popular music of the times in which they were made, the 1930s and '40s.
During the Depression and World War II, every major film studio had its own animation department, and along with independent producers such as Walt Disney and the Fleisher brothers, turned out cartoon shorts year-round. Cartoons were an integral part of every movie theater's program. As Friz Freleng, the Academy Award-winning director of dozens of Warner Brothers cartoons, once told an interviewer, he and his colleagues aimed for a high degree of sophistication. "The cartoons that we designed were never designed, in our minds, for children," Freleng said. "We made them for ourselves, really."
There was plenty of slapstick in these cartoons, to be sure, but a lot of satire and topical humor, too. By watching them, today's sophisticated children can learn a good deal about what made their parents and grandparents laugh -- and why.
The animators at Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM loved to kidnap in caricature the reigning stars of movies and radio. In "Mickey's Polo Team" (1935, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and the Big Bad Wolf battle an opposing team made up of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx (riding an ostrich, not a horse), while W.C. fields, Clark Gable, Eddie Cantor, Harold Lloyd, Charles Laughton (in costume as Henry VIII), Greta Garbo, Edna Mae Oliver and little Shirley Temple cheer from the stands.
In Warner's "The Woods Are Full of Them" (1937), the luminaries are transformed into animals. They include critic Alexander Woollcott, ringing the bell from his "Town Crier" radio show, who becomes Alexander Owlcott; columnist Walter Winchell becomes Walter Finchell; radio comics Billy Jones and Ernie Hare become Billy Goat and Ernie Bear; opera star Lily Pons becomes Lily Swans; a young Milton Berle becomes Milton Squirrel, and Bing Crosby becomes Bing Crowsby.
Crosby, and later Frank Sinatra, were especially popular subjects for parody at Warner's. So were Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Jerry Colonna, Abbott and Costello, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Carmen Miranda, all of whom were caricatured often in Warner's cartoons. In one tour de force, "Book Review" (1946), celebrity caricatures bring to life the covers of magazines and books: Benny Goodman is The Pied Piper; Sinatra is The Voice in the Wilderness; Jimmy Durante's nose is So Big, and Daffy Duck impersonates a zoot-suited Danny Kaye in order to perform a scat-singing warning to Little Red Riding Hood about the Wolf.
As animation historians Charles Solomon ("Enchanted Drawings") and Steve Schneider ("That's All folks.") have observed, the cartoons of World War II offer an especially vivid demonstration of how completely the popular entertainment of the period enlisted in the war effort and made light of the sacrifices civilians had to make. There are frequent jocular references to gasoline and food rationing, around-the-clock shifts at aircraft factories; victory gardens; blackouts and the restrictions on travel embodied in the slogan "Is This Trip Necessary?"
In Disney's Oscar-winning 1942 cartoon "Der Fuehrer's Face," Donald Duck awakes from a nightmare in which he was a starving worker in a Nazi munitions factory and kisses a model of the Statue of Liberty. In Warner's "Super Rabbit" (1943), Bugs Bunny, energized by super carrots, doffs his Superman caps in order to become "a real super hero": He then hops into a phone booth, emerges in a Marine uniform, and marches off to "Tokyo, Berlin and Points East" while singing the "Marine Hymn." In MGM's "The Blitz Wolf" (1942), a wolf named Adolf goes back on promise not to harm the Three Pigs. A title card parodies the usual motion picture disclaimer: "Any similarity to that little %! Hitler is not coincidental."
The distinction between propaganda films and entertainment shorts became "extremely tenuous," Solomon has written -- but there is good propaganda as well as bad propaganda. Children can learn about that from these vintage cartoons.
If local TV programmers really wanted to use cartoons to fulfill the Children's Television Act mandate to address the "educational and informational needs" of youngsters, there are ways to do it. They could have a host supply a smidgen of historical background for each cartoon, explaining the context in which a cartoon was created by giving its production date and describing the characters it features and the topics it parodies.
That would provide education along with the entertainment, learning with the laughter.
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.