Watch Me Pull a Rabbit Out of My Hat!

I watched a lot of cartoons as a young person. Like, a lot. In New York City, where I grew up, we rejoiced in the–at the time–enormous selection of 7 TV channels (including the educational channel), and by 5 o’clock every evening at least two of them were showing cartoons: Warner Bros., primarily, but Woody Woodpecker and the Hanna Barbera slate, and Tom and Jerry… and those frankly kind of awful limited-animation series like Jonny Quest and Clutch Cargo. I imbibed them with a growing critical sense (if you can say such a thing of an 8-year-old), coming to the conclusion that Warner Bros., and later, the work of Jay Ward, were the clear winners.

Both were deeply subversive, and both partook liberally of the attitudes of their time, while mocking those attitudes pretty mercilessly.

I learned a lot about the 1930s and 1940s from Warner Bros. At the time, of course, I didn’t understand how much I was taking on board about, for example, life on the Home Front during WWII (blackout curtains, gas rationing, “Is this trip really necessary?” and the Little Man from the Draft Board), who the Hollywood hot tickets were (all Warners stars, of course). Some of the references were direct: Lauren Bacall wants rabbit pie, ordered by Humphrey Bogart, and Bugs Bunny happily complies, because, well, Lauren Bacall. Others were… well, let’s just say that when I first saw Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement, I understood what Bugs Bunny had been going on about with the calla lillies.

Not all Warners cartoons repay rewatching: some of them are flat out appalling: there’s a reason why no one shows “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips,” or the horrifying “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs” except at “midnight” screenings. And even the more every-day cartoons have moments that bring you up short and make you realize that, in fact, we’ve made some progress since 1940. On the other hand, the sheer insane genius of “Porky in Wacky Land” or ” The Big Snooze” is hard to beat, and again, will sneak in all sorts of cultural and historical references you won’t find anywhere else.

And then there are Rocket J. Squirrel and his dauntless companion, Bullwinkle J. Moose, the Abbott and Costello of animation. As Beth Daniels says in this lovely article, “Rocky was the more intelligent straight man: a less hostile Abbott to Bullwinkle’s more secure Costello.” I kind of had a crush on Rocky when I was 7: he was so good hearted. And he put up with Bullwinkle’s repeated attempts to pull a rabbit out of a hat. What I didn’t realize when I was 7, because I was soaking in it, was the extent of the Cold War-era mindset the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show lampooned without mercy. Not just Rocky and Bullwinkle and their foils, Boris Badunov and Natasha Fatale (and their boss, Fearless Leader), but in Fractured Fairytales and Dudley Do-Right and especially, Mr. Peabody and his Boy, Sherman. Is there anything that Jay Ward and his team didn’t skewer?

The odd thing is that in considering these seminal influences and how they poked at all that was accepted in American culture, I realized the extent to which they also came from a set of very real values. Poking fun at the pokable is an honorable pastime. Pettiness sets you up for a take-down. Bugs Bunny may have been a self-admitted stinker, but he wasn’t… vicious. Daffy Duck delighted in tormenting Porky Pig, but he wound up hoist on his own petard at least half the time. And over in Rocky and Bullwinkle-land, our Hapless Heroes always seemed to survive, not least because the bad guys were just as hapless.

My husband and I raised our kids on the cartoons of our childhood. I like to think it was less from nostalgia than because we felt they gave the girls a useful toolkit for living in an increasingly nonsensical world. Also: Daffy Duck snarling “Of course you realize, this means WAR!” Priceless.




Watch Me Pull a Rabbit Out of My Hat! — 6 Comments

  1. Since we had to watch whatever my dad wanted to watch, there was a dearth of cartoons until Saturday morning cartoons became a thing–we’d get the TV until he came back from golf, after which it was sports all day until his Saturday night shows.

    But those Saturdays were a real crash course in cartoons. I rarely watched Rocky and Bullwinkle because I hated the impressionistic backgrounds and the jerkiness of the animation hurt my eyes as I tried to follow the action. Ditto certain others with distorted or jerky styles. The ones I became fascinated by were the really old cartoons, with their dated everyday implements, and the foreign cartoons. I still remember a gorgeous one from who knows where, retelling Russian folk tales.

    • I still remember a couple of the early Warners, when the cartoons were mainly a vehicle for the Warner song catalog–one about an undersea world of fishes, and a small juvenile delinquent fish who got his comeuppance to the tune of a song called “Small Fry.” Absolutely gorgeous. And the various cartoons meant to copy the “follies” of the day–variety numbers danced by food packages or utensils or books. Again, I learned a lot, altogether unconsciously, about everyday life in the 30s and 40s.

  2. Not a lot of cartoons in my life because Father was a literal thinker and had no use for them.

    But Mighty Mouse! I sneaked that one in any time I could and told Father I was listening to opera. Which I was. Heheheeeee

  3. You saw a bunch of Warner Brothers they must have been deleting from the catalog in the Midwest, Mad. I have no memory of any lampooning famous 30s and 40s stars. We missed some appalling ones, too, although even the ones still on the Halloween DVD are misogynous. But still subversive.

    Rocky and Bullwinkle should be used in history classes. Discussing what parody was and is, and what you can teach with it? Remembering that and MAD magazine. I now realize that although my parents were good Eisenhower Repubs, as they had been raised, my mother who wanted to be a librarian was brilliant and subversive as all get out. Or she would not have let me read adult SF at nine, MAD magazine, and so on.

    I wince at those moving lips in Clutch Cargo, but Johnny Quest was missing only one thing–the girls adventuring with them that I mentally put there. I remember one of its creators telling a full room at a convention that he had no clue back then, but he now understood what he unleashed. (Now, I would wonder why a scientist needed a bodyguard, and other curious details of the Quest universe. But then? It was all we had in the corn belt.)

  4. I remember packing in an anonymous hotel room for an early flight and having the TV on for background noise… and somehow it was on a cartoon channel… and I kept on getting distracted from packing because I’d forgotten just how much FUN Tom and Jerry were to watch…

  5. I am fortunate that I married a Warner Bros. completist. We had them on VHS. Then on laser discs. Then on DVDs. Now on Blu-Ray. My husband is nothing up to to date. And the damned cartoons are funny.

    My first cartoon crush, though, was Tom Terrific, who appeared on Captain Kangaroo. My mother approved of his sidekick, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, but I was a Tom Terrific girl all the way.