Probably in lock-step with getting interested in animation from the golden age came a fascination for even older forms of entertainment such as American 19th century Minstrel Shows. A large number of cartoons from the 1930s and early 1940s contain blackface gags. And did you ever wonder why Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig all wear those white gloves?

Minstrel shows are considered one of the first forms of entertainment that is purely American (hardly flattering to the U.S.) , though they probably have their roots in Commedia dell'arte and pantomime with blackface unfortunately taking the place of the fool's mask.

Though the minstrel shows were most definitely racist and would be frowned upon today, it's amazing to me how much of that entertainment form has evolved into other forms of entertainment. Vaudeville and sketch/variety shows (like Hee Haw or Saturday Night Live) both have their roots in minstrelsy.

Stephen Foster was a professional songwriter in the nineteenth century that wrote many enormously popular songs of that era. He is attributed to giving birth to the modern music industry since he was able to make a living as a professional songwriter (an unheard of profession before) through carefully maintaining the rights to his songs, selling sheet music, etc. His songs (such as "Oh, Susanna!" and "Camptown Races") were written for the minstrel show audiences and performed by minstrel troupes like the Christie Minstrels. Another song from the minstrel show era is "Jimmy Crack Corn" (attributed to the Virginia Minstrels, though its meaning is rather obscured by history). What's interesting is that all of these songs deal with slavery and the original lyrics would surprise today's audiences, yet they have been tamed down (or cleaned up) and now exist today as children's songs.

It's curious why older songs like this become children's songs of the modern era. The same thing happened to square dancing tunes (such as "Skip to My Lou" and "Here We Go Loop-De-Lou") and sweet ballads of the turn of the century (like "Daisy Daisy/Bicycle Built For Two", "Sidewalks of New York"). One thought is that the songs reach national popularity with adults and are simply passed down generation to generation. As generations moved on and society becomes more complex/cynical/aware-of-itself, the songs lose their relevance to adult audiences but are still considered innocent/sweet enough to be taught to children and they are immortalized as children's classic songs henceforth.

A similar thing happened to Cartoons of the Golden Age. It may surprise many people to learn that the Looney Tunes/Tom & Jerry cartoons were created for adults of that era. The cartoon shorts were shown before feature movies targeted for adults (like Casablanca for instance) and were watched and enjoyed by adults of the 1930s and 1940s. Their satire, their caricatures of modern celebrities and the multi-layered, sometimes sophisticated humour are all evidence of this, but perhaps even stronger evidence is from the mouths of the directors/animators/writers of the cartoons themselves. Warner Brothers has recently started releasing their cartoons full and uncut to the DVD market (Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2) and many of the special features, interviews and audio commentaries really seem to highlight this fact. The cartoons can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

It was only when television started its rise to popularity in the 1950s and these cartoons were collected into TV shows and marketed to children that they began to be seen as children's only entertainment. But if you compare a Looney Tunes short with a Three Stooges short or a Marx Brothers film, the only real difference is that one is animated and the other is not. Does anyone consider the Three Stooges as children's only entertainment?

I wonder if we will see the same thing happen to contemporary animation that are targeted for adults. Will "The Simpsons" or "South Park" one day be considered kids-only entertainment?

§7 · January 10, 2005 · Cartoons, Entertainment · · [Print]

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