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Skeletons in the Corporate Closet: Warner Bros.


Besides the award-winning animation and classic childhood memories, Warner Bros. had an undeniably racist edge.

"Breathe, stupid, breathe! You forgot to breathe again!"

"Don't go down there! It's dark!"

"Look at me! I'm-a ridin' sidesaddle! I'm-a ridin' sidesaddle!"

Virtually every American male over the age of 25 knows these quotes and the animated shorts from which they came. These cartoons and characters serve as a touchstone to their childhood, when animation meant laboriously painted cels, impeccable comedic timing, and lightning-fast deliveries from Acme. And given how well they hold up over the years -- if not, seem leagues better now -- just goes to show what timeless classics Warner Bros. (TWX) cartoons truly are.

But as Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts often reflected the era at the time of it being inked, they sometimes touched upon sensitive issues with an arguably insensitive approach. Although a sparked stick of dynamite and a giant mallet over the head could easily be laughed off by most, shorts centered around harsh African American stereotypes will do more than just raise an eyebrow.

In 1968, United Artists selected 11 Warner Bros. cartoons that the studio determined to be overtly insensitive to African Americans. As owners to Associated Artists Productions and the cartoon library therein, United Artists pulled the cartoons -- dubbed the "Censored 11" -- from distribution and withheld them from being officially aired on television or released on video. According to, Ted Turner upheld this policy after retaining rights to the pre-1948 cartoons and it's been maintained under their current ownership.

Each of the Censored 11 features exaggerated and derogatory caricatures of African Americans -- and a few native Africans. Tex Avery's 1937 short Uncle Tom's Bungalow -- a take on Stowe's classic -- contains a lazy and sluggish man named Uncle Tom and a Simon Legree-inspired character chasing a mother and child with a pack of dogs and a whip. 1938's Jungle Jitters features savage Zulu cannibals complete with spears, oversized lips, and bones in their hair. And the 1941 Bugs Bunny short All This and Rabbit Stew has the famous hare matching wits with a young African American hunter who can be distracted with a pair of dice.

But anyone who recalls the vast library of Warner Bros. shorts can say that racism isn't just confined to the aforementioned 11. Minstrels and references to the blackfaced performer Al Jolson pop up frequently, Native Americans were lampooned often, and World War II contributed to many malicious references to the Japanese. One such short, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips shows Bugs handing a grenade-laden ice cream cone to Japanese soldiers.

With the exception of that particular Bugs Bunny cartoon, Cartoon Network aired the tamer wartime-era Warner Bros. cartoons in a retrospective in 2001. But the network wasn't always willing to make exceptions.

That same year, Cartoon Network promised to air all Bugs Bunny shorts in a 49-hour marathon. The ones viewers might find particularly offensive were to be preceded by a disclaimer. However, before the airdate, 12 shorts -- including All This and Rabbit Stew and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips -- were pulled. The network made a second promise to air a documentary on the newly censored Bugs Bunny shorts in a special hosted by animation historian Jerry Beck.

That, too, was shelved and never made it to air.

Beck was furious over the move, telling the New York Times, "These are important historical documents, and they're being terribly abused." He, like many other Warner Bros. cartoon fans, maintain that despite the offensive content, these animated shorts have artistic merit.

Kevin S. Sandler, who edited Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, compared Warner's censorship with that of Disney (DIS) and its films like Song of the South. "Disney erases memory by making their older cartoons unavailable to newer audiences," Sandler told the New York Times.

But Disney and Warner-owned Cartoon Network aren't the only ones. They -- like ABC, NBC (GE), Nickelodeon (VIA), TBS, and others -- have each edited certain parts of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons to fit within their own guidelines. For example, in Friz Freleng's 1957 classic Show Biz Bugs, Daffy's finale will end at different stages of his routine -- often with a distracting edit by the networks.

Unfortunately, unlike Daffy, they can't "only do it once."

Speaking in regards to the Censored 11, Susan N. Fleishman, Warner's executive vice president of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, told Minyanville, "There are no current plans to distribute the shorts on DVD or television. Such distribution in the future may be possible if the shorts can be put in a proper context for the viewer." But if Cartoon Network had all the context it needed for a special on controversial animation and still balked, it doesn't seem likely that Warner Bros. will ever include the Censored 11 on any official DVD or time slot.

Making matters worse, with its censorship, rampant edits, and now Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies' inexplicable absence from network TV, the studio has effectively swept not only the admitted racism of the past under the rug, but with it all the other fondly remembered animated shorts.

But one contentious character is seeing the light of day. Speedy Gonzales -- once the subject of network censorship, despite being celebrated by Mexican Americans -- will be seen in a live action/CG-animated movie by Warner's New Line Cinema. It will be adapted by the same people behind the live action Garfield film and feature George Lopez as Speedy's voice.

Hmm. Maybe some Warner Bros. productions are better off shelved.

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