Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sahara Hare (1955) & Hare-Abian Nights (1959)

Based on Turban Decay’s publications so far, you may have concluded that I set out to start a blog based mostly around getting bent out of shape about old cartoons. This post… won’t contradict that.

You can find Sahara Hare here and you can watch Hare-Abian Nights below.

Let’s not get me wrong. I have the same fond childhood memories of watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as you do. But I think it goes without saying that some of his shorts have aged better than others.

I have nothing against the bunny. I love the bunny. I just don’t think he’s always made good life choices.

I wouldn’t put these two on the “better” list.

Past Offenses

Of course, Bugs Bunny cartoons contained racism long before either of these shorts, such as in All This and Rabbit Stew (1941) of the infamous Censored Eleven, a formulaic, abjectly racist short from early in Bugs’ career with a racial caricature playing the Elmer Fudd role.

I’ve seen more than one reviewer refer to this short’s blatant “pickaninny” stereotype as merely “a black Elmer Fudd,” a false equivalence so jarringly stupid that thinking about it makes my brain want to hemorrhage. Similarly insensitive depictions of black characters show up in Any Bonds Today? (1942), Which is Witch? (1949), and Mississippi Hare (1949).

We also see similar insensitivity in Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (1941), in which Elmer Fudd plays a stereotypical Native American hunter.

Footage from this short showed up again in What’s Cookin’ Doc (1944). Bugs Bunny, of course, went on to star in plenty of other cartoons that took potshots at Native Americans, like A Feather in His Hare (1948) and Horse Hare (1960).

In fact, in Cartoon Network’s “June Bugs” marathon, the network withheld twelve Bugs Bunny cartoons containing racial caricatures, including the cartoons I mentioned above.

Notice that neither of the subjects of this post—cartoons which display blatant Arab stereotypes—show up on that list.

Sahara Hare

The first cartoon under discussion, Sahara Hare, casts Yosemite Sam as the villain, “Riff-Raff Sam,” a strange hybrid between his usual Custer-inspired incompetent gunslinger self and a territorial Arab packing heat. In keeping with Sam’s IQ, the short depicts him as irrationally evil and worse, an animal abuser.

Even if the stereotypes don’t bother people, this still should, I would think.

Bugs, of course, proceeds to mock his clothes, his poor aim, and stupidity, none of which I found offensive in itself. Point of fact, I found the gags as funny as in most other Merrie Melodies shorts.

But then Bugs proceeds to call Sam “Mister Ayrab.” There I do have a problem. Call me crazy, but something about having Bugs Bunny use an ethnic slur on a stereotypical villain rubs me the wrong way. Just a bit.

Overall, though, aside from the usual Arab-villain stereotype and Bugs’ use of “Ayrab,” I had no major issue with this short.

Hare-Abian Nights

As for Hare-Abian Nights, on the other hand…

I don’t know what I dislike more, that this short contains so many stereotypes… or that the staff made it a clip show. The short features Bugs Bunny flashing back to past adventures, including the the aforementioned Sahara Hare, Bully For Bugs (1952), and Water, Water Every Hare (1952).

Despite that clip shows usually run short on content, this one features all the usual stereotypes, most prominently the stereotypical Arab disregard for life, as seen here where a sultan sends insufficiently-entertaining acts to a crocodile pit.

In fairness, I could see this giving closure to Elvis fans.
The Arab characters within look like walking stereotypes, like the hook-nosed vizier, clad in a turban tied with a crescent (presumably to symbolize Islam), or the loutish guard of minuscule vocabulary.

He does look like I looked as I watched this.
This bouncer looks like the love child of Lips Manlis and Guts Man.

In attempting to keep his life, Bugs pulls a Scheherazade and regales the sultan with stories from his past cartoons. We see the sultan’s identity at the end: Yosemite Sam, who as usual, falls into his own trap.

If me spoiling an over-50-year-old Bugs Bunny cartoon upsets you, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

Anyway, while both shorts contain stereotypes that I dislike, I wouldn’t call either invidious enough to put you off watching them. I did find Hare-Abian Nights here weak on gags, but honestly, its depiction of my ancestry bothered me less than seeing my ancestry relegated to a damn clip show.

So what do we do about this?

Well, nothing.

I hate censorship almost as much as I hate racism, and I firmly believe in the necessity to fully acknowledge the past, warts and all.

For instance, I feel very strongly that Disney should officially release Song of the South in some form, perhaps for film students or adult viewers. I’ve seen the film. While its racism and segregation take a sickeningly subtle, insidious form, its surprisingly pretty animation serves as an informative cross-section of Disney’s contemporaneous output. James Baskett—a good actor and, by all accounts, an even better human being—deserves appreciation for his ebullient performance in the film… even though I wouldn’t call it a very good film.

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah / Tepid-ass-film.

I fulminated at NewSouth Books’ decision to replace Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s 219 utterances of “nigger” with “slave.” In attempting to sanitize the past, we only lead ourselves to forget why we relegated these attitudes to the past. I agreed in particular with this New York Times editorial

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

So outside of advising parents not to show these—or Bugs Bunny’s other racist shorts—to bigots or the emotionally immature, I don’t mean to call for banning Sahara Hare or Hare-Abian Nights at all. Although I found the racially insensitive content of the two shorts annoying, I still found their usual Warner Brothers antics at least mildly amusing.

Honestly, both shorts remind me of the Bill & Ted movies, two very enjoyable and fun movies marred by liberal, casual use of the word “fag.”

I know they don’t mean any harm, and I love this film so, but still.

Trying to bury the existence of contemporaneous attitudes always does considerably more harm than confronting them head-on. But we must remember that the people who created these cartoons probably didn’t stop and think about the attitudes they inculcate in their viewers or how it feels to have widely-proliferated media judging you for something you can’t change.

So I say everyone should watch these shorts for the same reason people should watch most Bugs Bunny cartoons: their good animation, excellent voice acting, memorable gags, and sense of fun make them timeless.

Just make sure you actually think about them while you watch them.


  1. I'm going to actually disagree with you on Song of the South, which I've seen too. I think its current status, as gray market available on DVD or YouTube, is far better than a commercial release would afford it. The problem people have with reissuing it is that it is a bright colorful cartoon aimed at kids. Disney, if they were to reissue it, would have to completely dance around that fact, which would be impossible. Right now it's very difficult to show the movie to young children; I think that's the best situation. Keeping it under wraps, making the people who really want to see it have to go out and look for it-- that's the right way to handle something like that.

  2. I hadn't thought of that, but that does actually make a lot of sense. There really is no way Disney could release an animated film like that JUST at adults. I found the racism JUST buried enough to where I could see a LOT going wrong with a wide release.