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A scene from the 1951 Tom and Jerry short “Casanova Cat,” which Warner pulled from an upcoming Blu-ray.

Warner Home Video ,

Image-conscious studios play cat-and-mouse with film history

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 15, 2013 - 4:09 PM

Remember the “Tom and Jerry” adventure in which Tom emerges from a pile of coal and then tries to fool maid Mamie Two Shoes into thinking he’s an entirely different cat by shuckin’ and jivin’ his way across the lawn? Or how about when Tom blows cigar smoke into Jerry’s face, slaps an oversized bow tie on him and drops him onto a sizzling-hot plate, forcing the mouse into a Mr. Bojangles routine?

Doesn’t ring any bells? Well, that’s how Hollywood wants it.

“Tom and Jerry: The Golden Collection,” a Blu-ray dedicated to the duo’s 1940s-’50s work, was going to include those two shorts, “Mouse Cleaning” and “Casanova Cat,” when it’s released in June. But Warner Bros. Home Video recently yanked them because of those racially insensitive stereotypes.

“The company felt that certain content would be inappropriate for the intended audience and therefore excluded several shorts,” a WB spokesperson said in response to an interview request.

This isn’t the only case of distributors playing cat-and-mouse with classic cartoons.

• In Walt Disney’s 1948 short “Melody Time,” folk hero Pecos Bill is seen rolling his own cigarettes. In later releases, the smokes have disappeared, as has a scene in which he lights up with the help of a lightning bolt.

• “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” a 1943 Merrie Melodies short that parodies “Snow White,” has never been released on home video even though renowned cartoon historian Jerry Beck considers it one of the top 25 cartoons of all time.

• Disney excised scenes of miniature African cannibals from home-video releases of Donald Duck’s 1954 “Spare the Rod.” The 6½-minute short is now less than 3 minutes.

• Even recent fare isn’t immune. In the 1997 premiere season of “South Park,” Cartman spits out the phrase “Dirty Jew!” That line has been omitted from DVD releases.

It makes sense to shield impressionable kids from some material. But for avid, grown-up collectors, it’s like publishing “Great Expectations” with a few missing pages or, worse, not putting the novel on the shelves at all.

“Fans want their DVD releases to be archival, a record of exactly how episodes were originally presented,” said David Lambert, news director for TVshowsonDVD.com, a website owned by TV Guide.

Some of these moments can cause even the most stoic viewer to cringe. As an Asian-American, my blood still boils when I watch Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese landlord in the otherwise lovely “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from 1961. But ignoring the past doesn’t make it go away.

“You can’t eliminate the history of discrimination,” Lambert said. “Society has to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going.”

Distributors have come up with creative ways to present potentially offensive material without condoning it. Whoopi Goldberg taped a smartly worded introduction for 2005’s release of “Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3” that put those shorts in historical perspective.

“Removing these inexcusable images and jokes from this collection would be the same as saying [these prejudices] never existed,” she says. “So they are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored.”

Leonard Maltin, who collaborated with Beck on “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons,” came up with a similar solution a few years ago while curating a video series called “Walt Disney Treasures.” Not only did he personally introduce controversial cartoons, but he confined them to separate discs so parents could keep them from their kids — or watch and discuss them together.

“You don’t want to show these to children without appropriate context,” said Maltin, host of “Maltin on Movies” on cable’s Reelz Channel. “And some parents don’t want them to see them at all, which is fine.”

Clearing the briar patch

There’s one film Disney still refuses to release on home video to U.S. audiences: “Song of the South,” a 1946 feature based on the African-American folk tales of rascally Br’er Rabbit, as retold by white Southern writer Joel Chandler Harris. Combining live action with animation, its central character is an elderly black sharecropper who spins colorful stories to befriend a lonely white boy.

Best remembered now for the Oscar-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the film is readily available overseas and has even aired several times on BBC TV. But Disney historian Jim Korkis believes the studio, fearing a severe backlash in the States, is more interested in protecting its image than protecting youngsters.

“From a business standpoint, they could probably make a fortune,” said Korkis, who recently authored “Who’s Afraid of ‘Song of the South’? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories.” “But some people out there are just wired to believe that Disney is an evil empire out to corrupt today’s children.”

Korkis believes a release would dispel several misunderstandings about the film. It takes place during Reconstruction, not slavery, and the main character, Uncle Remus, is free to leave the Southern plantation where he lives. “South” also depicts a strong friendship between a black kid and a white kid years before Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis teamed up as “The Defiant Ones.”

Walt Disney was such a supporter of James Baskett, the actor who played Remus, that he lobbied for an honorary Oscar presented to Baskett by Ingrid Bergman.

Maltin and Korkis doubt that Disney will budge, but die-hard fans hold out hope that someday both nostalgia lovers and a new generation can overlook some painful stereotypes and enjoy a beautifully crafted classic.

My, oh, my, that’d be a wonderful day.

 

Neal Justin • 612-673-7431

neal.justin@startribune.com

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