The other night, I was with some friends and watching a Looney Tunes marathon (3 DVDs from four-disc set, $3 at the thrift store), when the question arose of why we, one of many generations who grew up on cartoons, aren’t more messed up than we are. What went on television when we were young would have today’s parents up in arms and at the doorsteps of the production companies before you could say “That’s all, folks!”
Don’t get me wrong, I love my old cartoons — they’re hysterically funny and the short form they represent just isn’t what it used to be — but they were hardly wholesome.
For example, in one cartoon, an unnamed cat with a Schadenfreudian attitude regarding succotash is negligently left locked inside for two weeks with a horde of canned tuna as his only source of food. Unfortunately for him, the only can opener in the house is in the possession of a rodent who, for no apparent reason, refuses to let the cat have it.
The whole war that follows involves a cat desperate to feed himself and a mouse cruelly taunting him for his own pleasure. The fact that the cat happens to have access to enough hardware, resourcefulness, and explosive ordnance to blast open a window and escape to the food-rich wilderness but instead applies it to assaulting a door-shaped hole-in-the-wall isn’t strictly logical, but that kind of thing seems to make perfect sense when you’re eight. The predominant feeling among us grown-up viewers was pity for the poor starving cat, but in an era of cartoon-making where every major production company had their fair share of heroic mouse characters, the whole affair could be very confusing for a small child.
On the subject of sadism, one finds that quite a few cartoons end with some sort of perpetual process that fades into the distance or a flippant perspective on pain and death, like having Tom get the guillotine for following orders with no more mourning than a “c’est la guerre,” or Sylvester getting repeatedly zapped along a trolley power line all the way to the horizon. (Cat lovers are apparently a minority in the world of professional animation.)
It’s sort of interesting to ponder the potential message — something along the lines of “bad things happen to the bad guy, and it’s okay to be cheery about it regardless of the degree.” Under more complex analysis, one could probably argue that it’s actually a commentary on the nature of war or a statement that persistence of crime equals persistence of punishment — a two-ounce Tweety can’t be worth the calories, not to mention pain and suffering, that are regularly invested in attempting his consumption. There’s also the occasional ending that is downright questionable in judgment, as in the mass suicide by pistol of several gangster rabbits after inadvertently delaying the hare from winning against the tortoise. And bringing up cultural stereotypes is a completely different wheel of Spanish-speaking cheese.
Of course, cartoons often do and did provide constructive life lessons along with their entertainment value. If nothing else, they gave people with any of a wide range of speech impediments characters to whom they could relate. Stammerers, lispers, mutes, and even the miscellaneously accented or incomprehensible have been represented in some form.
There’s also what was declared by we viewers to be perhaps the sweetest animated short of all time, one that involves an enormous dog taking care of an adorable kitten, even risking the wrath of its owner to protect it. See? Even would-be mortal enemies can develop a close familial bond if they try. Who says cartoons are just mindless violence?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some research to do. It may take some time, but I’m going to figure out what hunting season it is if it kills me. Or at least brutally maims me until the next scene, at which point I’ll have healed completely and be only moderately irritated.