Sunday, 14 August 2016

Cartoons Never Were Just for Kids: Why Sausage Party is Nothing New

This weekend saw the release of Sausage Party, Seth Rogen's R-rated, computer animated comedy. While many journalists acknowledged that an R-rated animated film was nothing new, there were inevitably those few who behaved as if Sausage Party was somehow novel in being an animated film aimed at adults. As any student of animation history knows, this is hardly the case. Animation has a long history of films aimed primarily at adults, to the point that it is difficult to say that cartoons ever were just for kids, even if that attitude is still somewhat common.

I am not sure when the attitude that "cartoons are just for kids" actually arose, but it seems to me that it has existed for decades. The January 17 1939 issue of Look magazine contained an article entitled, "Hollywood Censors Its Cartoons". The article contains a famous quote from Leon Schlesinger (head of Leon Schlesinger Productions, which would later become Warner Bros. Cartoons), "We cannot forget that while the cartoon today is excellent entertainment for young and old, it is primarily the favourite motion picture fare for children. Hence we always must keep their best interest at heart by making our product proper for their impressionable minds."

Of course, here I have to say that I suspect Mr. Schlesinger was merely playing to the crowd. While the cartoons produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions and later Warner Bros.certainly did appeal to children, I think anyone who has ever watched them would agree that they were clearly made for adults or general audiences. After all, they often contain jokes, innuendos, pop culture references,and even situations that probably went over the heads of many children. That having been said, the fact that Leon Schlesinger felt that he had to give the impression of making cartoons acceptable for children points to the possibility that at least some people at the time thought of cartoons as primarily entertainment made for children.

It seems to me that the idea that cartoons were made primarily for children probably became more pronounced with the arrival of television. Leon Schlesinger had observed that the cartoons were "...the favourite motion picture fare for children...", and this was not lost on the networks and local television stations in the early days of the medium. By the late Fifties it was not unusual for local children's shows to be filled with old theatrical shorts. It was in 1955 that CBS debuted Mighty Mouse Playhouse, an anthology of old Terrytoons shorts that was also the first Saturday morning cartoon. By the mid-Sixties all three networks had blocks of cartoons scheduled on Saturday morning. What is more, the Fifties saw the emergence of cartoons made specifically for television, including Crusader Rabbit, Ruff and Reddy, and others. While most of the old theatrical shorts and even many of the early television cartoons were not made just for children, the fact that they were being used as children's programming probably made the attitude that much more prevalent.

While the attitude that "cartoons are just for kids" has probably existed for decades and was probably made more prevalent by television's use of cartoons, cartoons have been made for adults, or at least general audiences, from the very beginning. During the Silent Era it seems fairly clear that the "Felix the Cat" theatrical shorts were made with adults in mind. Multiple "Felix the Cat" cartoons make reference to both Prohibition (then still in effect) and drinking. The "Krazy Kat" cartoons of the Silent Era were fairly loyal to the spirit of the comic strip, widely applauded for its complex characters and cartoonist George Herriman's verbal ingenuity. Even Walt Disney's cartoons of  the era were made with a more general audience than simply children in mind. One of the earliest cases of the censorship of a cartoon involved Mr. Disney's "Alice Solves a Puzzle" (1925).  The Pennsylvania Censorship Board demanded he cut scenes related to bootleg whiskey. There was even at least one pornographic cartoon produced in the Silent Era. It is not known who created the short "Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure", but it was made in 1928 and apparently developed in Cuba because no American film labs would touch it. While I doubt many outright pornographic cartoons were produced in the early days of film, the fact is that most animated cartoons of the era were made for adults or general audiences rather than exclusively for children.

The advent of sound did nothing to change the fact that most cartoons were made for general audiences or even primarily for adults. Indeed, one need look no further than the Fleischer Brothers' early "Betty Boop" theatrical shorts. As originally conceived Betty Boop was highly sexualised, wearing a dress that was fairly short for the era and clung to her hourglass figure like a second skin. There was a good deal of sexual innuendo in the "Betty Boop" films, and often content of a sexual nature. Indeed, the shorts "Chess-Nuts" and  "Boop-Oop-A-Doop" feature Betty having to defend her honour against a lecherous king and a lecherous circus ringmaster respectively. The original "Betty Boop" cartoons could be as racy as any pre-Code feature film. Not surprisingly, when the Production Code started being more stringently enforced in 1934, Betty Boop started dressing more modestly and the sexual content in her cartoons disappeared.

Of course, even with the end of the Pre-Code Era (roughly 1929 to 1934), cartoons were still being made to appeal to general audiences and even adults. As mentioned earlier, the Warner Bros. cartoons often featured content that young children probably wouldn't appreciate or even understand. What is more, Warner Bros. was not alone in this. Tex Avery's famous cartoon "Red Hot Riding Hood" was released by MGM in 1943. Then as now it was clearly a theatrical short made with adults in mind, not children. Reportedly the MPAA Production Code Administration demanded cuts to the short before they would give it their seal of approval.  "Red Hot Riding Hood" was so successful that it inspired several sequels, all of which are also clearly made for adults. These were hardly isolated cases during the Golden Age of American Animation. In fact, it seems more times than not, when a cartoon was not meant for general audiences, it was meant to appeal to grown ups rather than kids.

Even with the advent of television's Saturday morning cartoon block aimed primarily at children, the Sixties still saw animated works made to appeal to an older crowd. In the early Sixties American television entered into a cycle of prime-time cartoons aimed primarily at adults. These included such shows as The Bullwinkle Show, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Top Cat. Later in the decade there was the release of the feature film Yellow Submarine (1968). While Yellow Submarine can certainly be appreciated by children, its puns, pop culture references, and double entendres make it so that it is probably more appreciated by teenagers and adults.

The decline of the Production Code and the creation of the MPAA ratings system would ultimately allow animated films to go where they rarely had before. Fritz the Cat (1972), directed by Ralph Bakshi and based on the character created by Robert Crumb, became the first animated film ever to be rated "X". The film launched Ralph Bakshi in his career as animated feature film director, making animated films that appealed primarily to adults, including Heavy Traffic (1973), Wizards (1977), and American Pop (1981). Fritz the Cat would be followed by other "X" rated animated features (not all submitted to the MPAA), including Dirty Duck (1974), Shame of the Jungle (1975), and Once Upon a Girl (1976).  Of course, during the Seventies there were other animated features made for adults that were not "X" rated. With its dark themes and violence, Watership Down (1978) is clearly an animated film that was not made with young children in mind. The late Sixties and early Seventies also saw theatrical shorts geared for adults, including "Bambi Meets Godzilla" (1968), "Escalation" (1968), and "Thank You Mask Man" (1971--based on Lenny Bruce's comedy routine).

Since the Seventies there have been several animated feature films clearly meant for adults, films that have received "PG-13' and even "R" ratings. Heavy Metal (1981), The Plague Dogs (1982), Rock and Rule (1983), South Park: Bigger, Louder, and Uncut (1999), and yet others. Of course, since the Nineties television has seen several animated shows made primarily for adults, including The Simpsons, King of the Hill, South Park, Family Guy, and others. What is more, I would argue that the computer animated films produced by Pixar and DreamWorks were made with general audiences in mind rather than children. After all, in many of the films there are jokes and other things that only teenagers and adults would understand. What is more, the 21st Century has seen its share of R-rated animated films. The stop-motion animation film Anomalisa (2015), which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Film, was rated R. What is more, Sausage Party might not even be the first computer animated film to be R-rated, depending on one's definition of computer animation. Given Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theatres (2007) was made using Adobe Flash, the argument could be made that it was the first computer animated, R-rated film.

Of course, so far I have just discussed Western Animation. In Japan the idea that "cartoons are only for kids" has never existed, so that there have always been animated works meant to appeal primarily to adults alongside ones made primarily for children. What is more, since the Eighties such Japanese animated films as Akira (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Hayao Miyazaki's films have received widespread exposure here in the United States.

 Ultimately I find it hard to conceive that anyone today could think that an animated film would be remarkable in that it was made for adults. While I suppose that many journalists might not know about the animation produced in the Silent Era and the Golden Age of American Animation, I wouldn't think one has to be a student of animation to remember such relatively recent films as Heavy Metal (1981), South Park: Bigger, Louder, and Uncut (1999),  Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theatres (2007), and yet others, not to mention the various animated TV series that have aired since the Nineties. I really cannot explain how any journalist writing about film today could not know about these films and TV shows, not unless they have literally ignored animation for decades. If that is the case, then they certainly should let someone else with a bit more expertise write about the subject. Cartoons never have been just for kids, and that may well be truer in the 21st Century than it ever has been.


Steve Bailey said...

Anyone who is silly enough to believe that cartoons are meant only for kids should check out the Fleischer Bros.' Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. They kill that argument handily.

KC said...

Good post--so well researched. It cracks me up that US film labs wouldn't touch Buried Treasure. Maybe not a surprise though. I laughed through that whole movie, but I was shocked!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Even for the Twenties Buried Treasure is pretty shocking. In a way I'm not surprised no American labs would touch it! Still a funny movie though!