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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Love Dat Gal!

(Edited since original posting to remove imprudent reference to Oprah Winfrey. No offense to Ms. Winfrey was intended.--R.)

She didn't have the best looking legs in the business, but a lot of people love her--including Kevin and I.

I'm referring, of course, to "Mammy Two-Shoes," the funniest character you never fully saw. And likely will never see again--unless you're willing to shell out for the TOM AND JERRY SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION (1 and 2) on DVD. Even then, you might not see her--or at least, hear her--as originally intended.

For those who don't have the cash to see her on video, despair not. There's a website out there (The Ultimate Mammy Two Shoes Page, on Tripod) devoted to all things "Mammy": pictures, sounds, a filmography of her appearances, a brief bio, and even--of all things--a "Mammy" chat room. You can find her, in all her politically-incorrect glory, here.

I apologize in advance for the annoying Tripod ads you may have to endure...

If you don't know who she is, that's understandable--one of the many animated victims of changing times, she's the "Rodney Dangerfield" of cartoon characters: cut, redubbed and (perhaps the most shameful indignity of all) re-animated out of existence.

"Mammy Two-Shoes" wasn't officially her name, of course--she had none. The name "Mammy Two-Shoes" was never uttered beyond the MGM studio walls, but was bestowed on her by the animators because that's all you saw of her--two shoes. Never in any of the cartoons in which she appeared did she show her face, though she had been seen full figure (no pun intended) in at least one--even if it was in long shot and silhouette.

She's the Hattie McDaniel-like black maid in some of the best Tom and Jerry cartoons, from the very first (PUSS GETS THE BOOT in 1940) to PUSH-BUTTON KITTY in 1952. The character for whom the sentence "Thomas, if you been in dat icebox, START PRAYIN'!" was practically a personal catchphrase. With a broom always at the ready to smack Tom, she, despite her face never being seen, had more personality than any half-dozen Disney characters. And judging from MOUSE CLEANING, a pitching arm that should have caught the attention of the Dodgers: she beans Tom with a lump of coal from a good 300 yards away!

Her relationship to Tom isn't always clear--sometimes Tom's owner, sometimes not, but always his constant nemesis. And don't think Jerry didn't take advantage of it--many of the plotlines involving Mammy concern Jerry's attempts to provoke her in order to get Tom out of the way. In fact, probably most of them, but the best were the ones that strayed from this formula. In THE LONESOME MOUSE, Jerry succeeds at arousing Mammy's ire toward Tom by making her think Tom destroyed the kitchen. Naturally Tom is booted "o-w-t out!", to borrow her unique spelling. Initially euphoric, Jerry yanks the stuffing out of Tom's bed, paints a Hitler mustache on his picture, and does the backstroke in Tom's milk dish. But the euphoria quickly fades when Jerry decides he really does miss the big lug--and schemes to get him back.

Which he does, of course, by taunting Mammy: chasing her up on a stool and hacking at it with the razor that had fallen loose from her skirts (as I said, these weren't PC cartoons). She retrieves Tom to dispatch Jerry, which he pretends to do in a particularly funny mock fight. All is well--at least until the next cartoon.

In OLD ROCKIN' CHAIR TOM, Tom and Jerry team up to combat a new cat Mammy has brought in, "Lightning," (so called because he literally morphs into a bolt of lightning when he runs) because she thinks "poor old Uncle Tom" is too old to catch mice. An accidentally-ingested iron and an impossibly powerful magnet were never so much fun.

But times were changing--starting with the end of World War II, we began to see less and less of her. By the time of THE MOUSE COMES TO DINNER in 1947, she's relegated to little more than a walk-on role, setting up the action and exiting stage left. She must have taken a Valium, because we don't see her again in the cartoon--strange considering the shambles Tom and Jerry make of the place. After 1952 she was gone, and much of the conflict--and fun--of the cartoons went with her. The white middle-class types of TOT WATCHERS were a poor replacement for the often feisty Mammy.

The cartoons transferred to TV pretty much intact in the 1950's, but in the sixties Mammy became a little bit of an embarrassment to MGM. A decision was made to edit her out of all the cartoons in which she appeared, to be replaced by a white maid (animated by Chuck Jones and voiced by June Foray). The cuts were anything but seamless--as anyone who's seen the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerrys knows, his style and Hanna-Barbera's do not mesh.

Ted Turner, who acquired the MGM film catalogue in the 80's, restored the original Mammy--with a difference. The hilarious vocal work of Lillian Randolph and the McDaniel-ish dialect were gone, replaced by a more educated, grammatically correct (and flat) black voice stripped of the nuance of the original. I can imagine no greater insult to the memory of a wonderful actress and comedienne. (Note: except what I did to her when I first posted this entry. I referred to her as Vivian Randolph, confusing her with COAL BLACK's Vivian Dandridge. Oh gods of animation, forgive me...I'll do penance by pounding myself repeatedly with an Acme mallet).

The TOM AND JERRY SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION DVDs compounded the problem at first by including some of the Turner-dubbed Mammy cartoons in its initial release, but fan complaints led to the offending disks being re-issued (though, on the commentary track for PUSS GETS THE BOOT, you can still hear the "redubbed" voice--which Earl Kress misidentifies as belonging to Randolph).

Nice to see ol' Mammy getting attention at last--now if only she could get the makeover she deserves in the form of restoration, rather than obliteration. Hey, maybe she'll make striped stockings a fashion trend.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Aaaaaah, Yes! Something New Has Been Added!

Or, more to the point, "Technology Bites, Part 2..."

If you're one of the estimated six people who have seen this blog, you may have noticed that the Home For Orphan Toons got a new coat of paint and a little remodeling.

The old design was cool, but hard to read, at least to my increasingly middle-aged eyes. This redesign should make things a bit more convenient for everyone.

The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed a few minor little geegaws like the addition of a Site Meter "widget" and Technorati tags, which hopefully will make the blog known to those besides me, Kevin, Alicia, and whatever hapless doofus who inadvertently stumbles by. Sadly, it was nowhere near as simple as it should have been.

Instead of doing what I would have liked to be doing--namely, reviewing--I have spent the last week and a half following my writer friend Dorothy Thompson's advice and navigating the unfamiliar, shark-infested waters of HTML and site feeds to bring the crowds to my blog. Since my cleaning woman's 5-year-old granddaughter is more comfortable around a computer than I am, you can imagine how harrowing that was. The instructions for Site Meter referred to configuration settings that didn't exist on my blog: the "Layout" link, the "Add And Arrange Elements" page, and so on.

I looked at what was then referred to as my "Template", and saw nothing but arcane HTML code. Consequently, Site Meter didn't get added, until--

--I happened to run across a little notation in Blogger Help about having to migrate one's template as well as the blog. Seems I--heh, heh--when updating to what was then the "Beta" version, retained the old page layout and didn't know it. And it's been like that for months. Geez, Blogger, you guys could have told me that when I first switched over and saved me a nervous breakdown or two.

But, as you can see, everything's been fixed and I'm a lean, mean blogging machine. That is all. Smoke if ya got 'em.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Geena Davis on Animation: No Girls Allowed?

Wow. Two posts in one day. I'm going to need to rest up after this...

As some of you more fanatical toon devotees may already know, there was a post in Jerry Beck's Cartoon Brew blog a couple of days ago about actress Geena Davis' speech to an organization known as the National Conference For Media Reform. In it she complains about what she sees as an appalling shortage of positive, well-written female characters in animated cartoons, both now and in the past. To put it mildly, her speech couldn't have set off a bigger explosion if she'd borrowed ammunition from Wile E. Coyote, judging from the comments following the post, the majority of which range from mild disagreement to towering rage.

Now, I have to say that while I agree with Ms. Davis in spirit (you can sense a "but" coming, I'm sure. Well, you're right) I respectfully suggest she study her toon history a bit. While there might not have been as many strong, dimensional female characters in animation as there ought to have been, historically the world of animated cartoons hasn't exactly been as much of a boys' club as Ms. Davis seems to think. Kevin and I discussed this in our recent correspondence, which I've included here, His comments, as always, are in italics:

Kevin says:


Hmmm, ya got me thinkin’.

What about Little Lulu? She seems to outwit some truly surly adult males who, rightfully, should get their comeuppance for treating others like lesser beings, merely by just being a kid. She has remained a favorite female character of mine and she *STILL* has not received her due on good quality DVD collections as yet, but I don’t want to go off on a rant as to how I feel that most or all of Famous Studios’ output just never receives recognition with full restoration. But Little Lulu obviously gets her name from not only a nickname given to silent film star, Louise Brooks, but also from an adult perspective of her as a brat who gets in the way of the adult world, she often takes the same tactic as Bugs Bunny in the sense that she’ll only get under your skin if you’ve tried to cheat or disrespect her in any way.

Hi Kevin,

"What about Little Lulu?," indeed. Good point, Kevin--I should have mentioned Lulu myself. Yes, she was a 'lulu" in more ways than one, which is what I think Marge Buell intended. You could say she was a female template for the later Dennis The Menace--not so much deliberately putting authority figures in their place like a miniature Bugs as, through her well-intentioned actions, exposing some of their bluster. (Much the same way that Bugs Bunny deflated the goonlike drill sergeant, albeit with the best of intentions, in FORWARD MARCH HARE.) Adults can be horribly condescending toward kids (I've even been guilty of this myself) and often view them as little more than objects: "children should be seen and not heard," and the like. The adults' downfall inevitably comes when the kids prove to be smarter and a little feistier than they figured.

The grouchy middle-aged man who was Little Lulu's foil had such a condescending attitude--remember when he tried to use her to get some free caddying help, figuring she could be bought off with some candy? He figured she'd stand by passively and leave him alone--but dedicated little thing that she was, she actually intended to do the job she was being "paid" for, whether she knew how to do it or not. In other words, he grossly underestimated her, and paid dearly for it. You might say he was her "Mr. Wilson", who also had some rather old-fashioned ideas about how kids should behave--and Dennis never conformed to his expectations. (Though Mr. Wilson, in truth, secretly admired Dennis for it).

Kevin says:

Comedienne Tracy Ullman ran with this premise and made her a feminist, failing to notice that Lulu’s fight for right embraced every vulnerable living thing, whether male or female. She was a kid who cared, and that is why I sometimes feel that Hollywood so often blew such a grand chance to give us a Lulu live action movie. The lyrics to the Famous Studios’ song that accompanies every LULU cartoon explains that, although some might think that she’s in the way, she’s there to prove that perhaps some adults need to be put in their place…and we ultimately love her for it!

Well, Ullman drew from the Lulu of the Dell/Gold Key comic books to a large extent. Lulu did take a strong proto-feminist stance even in the early stories, usually putting one over on the extremely sexist boys. She would devise rather clever ways of getting even with lummoxes like Tubby. [In one storyline] she, while the boys are swimming, takes their clothes, then instructs another little girl to go home and get some of her little brother's diapers and safety pins. When the panicky boys find their clothes missing and are confronted with the choice of wearing diapers home or going bare, Lulu innocently explains it was all she could find. They put on the diapers when Lulu agrees to take them home in a wagon, under a blanket, so no one would see them. Of course, Lulu sends the wagon down a hill, and the kids unintentionally draw a crowd of people. Who, of course, remove the blanket to reveal the diapered boys, much to their mortification.

The discussion about Lulu has caused me to realize that what few strong female characters there are in cartoons are, more often than not, little girls. Even the examples Geena Davis provides, such as Dora The Explorer (though I'd question that choice) and Lilo from LILO AND STITCH. I'd add to the list Lucy from "Peanuts"--she was clearly smarter than Charlie Brown and knew how to "push his buttons", so to speak, playing off his insecurities. She was the cold water of reality in contrast to Charlie Brown's hopes of eventual success, be it at kicking a football or winning a baseball game. From the same strip is, of course, Peppermint Patty (though, being a tomboy, she's probably not the best example).

Even Davis' other cited example, Kim Possible, is a teenager.

Or how about the Baby Snooks quail in the Warner Bros. cartoon QUENTIN QUAIL? Here's another case of a girl character who, like Lulu, makes blustery adults look stupid--in this case her father.

Honey, in both her incarnations, is pretty much a given. Even though in her earliest form she was presumably an adult character, she was nonetheless very little girl-like (with the exception of the oft-mentioned BOSKO IN PERSON).

I could, I suppose, even add my own aborted cartoon character ("Aimee") to the list, as she's a sarcastic, feisty little-girl character in the Lucy mold.

Why is this, I wonder? Is it more acceptable for little girls to have some guts, as they're young and as yet, sexless (and therefore unthreatening)? An aggressive female character who can vanquish opponents with the finesse of a Bugs Bunny might have been a little too frightening for the male animators of the Golden Age to contemplate. (The sexual implications of such a character aside).

The few dimensional adult female characters one can think of were the other extreme, little old ladies like Granny and Witch Hazel (also, it's presumed, sexless and unthreatening). Olive Oyl was a young adult female and certainly sexual (look at the way she drooled over Bluto!) but the sexuality is negated by her appearance.

We may have just hit on the reason here--give a young attractive adult female character power and you get a Betty Boop, or so the male animators think. Even today that makes the "boys' club" nervous. They can't make a female character funny without stripping her of all the sexual "baggage."

Though, to be fair, what template did they have to draw from? The humor in cartoons of the 1930s and '40s was drawn largely from two sources--vaudeville and comic strips. Besides Gracie Allen and maybe Fannie Brice, there weren't any prototypes from the stage on which to build funny, appealing, dimensional woman characters.

In the comics they were legion--Tillie The Toiler, Fritzi Ritz, Blondie--but generally didn't translate well to animation. So that left very little.

And does Ms. Davis not regard perhaps a slightly modernized version of Lulu, with a consciousness to boot, young Lisa Simpson? Here’s a little girl who could make you weep as we sometimes watched the unfeeling world through her eyes and she ultimately had to compromise and lower her standards. You and I, personally, know that feeling well!!

You're really on the ball this morning--I should have mentioned Lisa Simpson as well. She's even taken over the spotlight from her brother Bart to a large extent, which I suppose could be considered poetic justice of a sort. But again, she's a little-girl character, and therefore safe.

Yeah, sometimes I do bemoan the fact that more wasn’t done with characters like Honey. Even when she was a little fully realized black stereotype, inspiration could have been drawn from jazz singers and performers and our little Honey could have produced for her animators some terrific production numbers that would have shown her to be a viable character into the 1940’s. I was disappointed that harmon didn’t retain her right up into the end of the series, but you’re talking, as you stated, about a good ol’ boy regime that had plagued cartoons and, perhaps, film throughout that period. Yet, understand that this did not stop females from coming to the forefront, even if they had to compromise certain standards that they would have rather put in the forefront of their careers, but they beat a system that would have often kept them out if they didn’t show themselves to be as strong.

Imagine the possibilities--say Vivian Dandridge doing a 1940's Honey. It's an intriguing prospect, with her as a little jazz/blues singer in the way Bosko imagined himself to be a little Cab Calloway in his final three cartoons. Even though women are coming to the forefront now, one can't help but be a little mournful of what might have been.

So rather than dismiss Gena Davis’s comments as misrepresentations, I’d rather challenge her viewpoint with any great toon festival showing the female characters in clear focus, even if they are vamping it up.

As for LOONEY TOONS, let’s not forget a cartoon called “WILD WIFE”. It’s title might seem to suggest that its lead character with her rants of having such a busy day and her husband not believing that she’s even intelligent enough to have such trials and tribulations is just whining once again, but listen to that husband and watch these kids as she tries to get them all out to where they are going so she can have some down time. And, even then, she meets the usual daily obstacles. I’d have ended the husband’s rant in the same fashion as she did since that seemed like the only way to get through to him!!

Yes, she was the rare funny adult female character, if ruined a bit by the usual stereotypes of the time (for example: she can't parallel park, she shops so much she has to open up a tiny "window" in the mile-high stack of packages she's carrying to see in front of her, the rolling-pin bit at the end) but it was the first Warner Bros. cartoon I could think of that was sympathetic to the plight of the housewife. It was also the only one I can think of that put a female character in slapstick situations (as when she runs out to feed the meter at the beauty parlor, curlers still in her hair and a mudpack on her face. She almost scares some poor passer-by to death).

An "all-girl" collection of reviews in the coming week might be appropos for the blog, if I can find the time, though as usual I make no guarantees.

To sum up, Kevin, I must congratulate you on your comment on Cartoon Brew, which made some points I failed to address, and made my post seem silly in comparison. Your ability to write amazes me at times.


To this I would only add the following--what Davis is doing is admirable. I do caution her not to be overly enthusiastic, however--in her zeal she may pressure animation studios to include female characters just for the sake of including them, and what good is that? Is a "token girl" what she wants? Should she work with studios to make the sort of cartoons her daughter would want to see, she ought to ask herself one question, "Will this be entertaining, both for me and for her?" That's the only thing that truly matters.

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It's Alive! It's Alive!

Yes, I know--I've been gone a long time.

Much of the time has been spent wondering what I should do with this blog. I considered even abandoning it completely, and probably would have were it not for one thing.

It's attracting the notice of writers such as Dorothy Thompson, who recently showcased this blog in her ongoing feature How To Pump Up Your Blog To Sell More Books. Ms. Thompson made very valuable suggestions, such as adding a site meter to track visits. However, as that requires a monthly fee, I'm going to have to think long and hard before I commit myself to any expenses. I'm already in up to my neck with Netflix as it is.

With this newfound attention, I wondered if I should make this blog more "writerly", writing more standard (that is, brief) animation reviews, or should I continue my commitment to Kevin and provide every single visual detail for his enjoyment? The reviews as they stand now are an editor's nightmare, taking up the equivalent of fifteen single-spaced typed pages. It doesn't exactly show me at my best as a writer, but...

After a good deal of thought, I've decided friendship should win out, and the reviews, for now, will be written as they've always been.

There have been a lot of new developments on the toon front, at least for me. For one, I finally broke down and bought one of Jerry Beck's excellent series of DVDs containing obscure animation. The one I chose, a Terrytoons disk covering the 1940-41 release season, contains a cartoon that, while flawed as most Terrytoons are, merits attention: a Gandy Goose cartoon called THE MAGIC PENCIL. Guess what's going to be the first review for the revived blog?

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