Looney Tunes’ First Movement: Bosko and Honey
In the years before they launched Looney Tunes at the Warner Brothers Studio, Rudoph Ising and Hugh Harman had been working with Ub Iwerks and the first lineup of animators at Walt Disney’s studio. When the Disney team hit success with a proto-Mickey character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Universal Studios successfully wrenched the rights away and soon Ising and Harman found themselves working at Universal. During 1928 and 1929, Ising and Harman worked together in their free time to develop a new character intended to be used in a test reel for a cartoon using synchronized sound – Cutting edge stuff back then.
In early 1928, Harman legally copyrighted his early designs and in the paperwork he described the new character as a southern “negro boy” named Bosko. Bosko’s first cartoon is imitative of Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series and in the tradition of the first cartoon, J. Stuart Blackburn’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900). Like its progenitors Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid grabs for laughs by having the animator as a player in the film, both interacting and contending with an animated element. Ising and Harman shopped Bosko’s screen test around Hollywood until they received an offer from producer Leon Schlesinger to direct a series of cartoons for Warner Brothers to be titled ‘Looney Tunes’ – a name which was suspiciously similar to Disney’s popular line of ‘Silly Symphonies.’
Bosko’s second adventure was his first to be theatrically exhibited and it is important to animation aficionados for a number of reasons. It was the first produced by Warner Brothers, the first released under the banner of Looney Tunes and the first to feature the closing line “That’s All Folks” which was later passed on from Bosko to Porky Pig. In Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1929), Bosko attempts to woo his new sweetheart Honey by performing a medley of popular songs including “Singin’ in the Bathtub” and “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” before they are humorously endangered by a runaway motorcar. Made before the implementation of the restrictive Hays Code, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub features mildly risqué comical imagery like fallen underpants and oversized cow udders – gags which worked well for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Under the direction of Ising and Harman, many of Bosko and Honey’s cartoons were drawn by Isadore ‘Friz’ Freleng who would become one of the main creative forces behind Looney Tunes for decades to come.
Bosko and Honey were originally styled as musically-gifted and grammatically-challenged stereotypes taken from the tradition of American blackface entertainers. These creative choices reflect badly on Bosko’s creators but also illustrate the pronounced intolerance towards difference that unfortunately remained prevalent all around the world for far too long. Between the World Wars in the United States there was a renewed interest in the Minstrel Show era of entertainment from the Nineteenth Century. It was the time of Al Jolson and Show Boat, and it is within this sociological context that Isling and Harman created Bosko.
By the time of his third cartoon, Congo Jazz (1929), Bosko’s Uncle Tom voice changed to a high falsetto remarkably similar to that of Mickey Mouse but the racialized design elements continued with the introduction of Honey, who is initially depicted with a stereotypical afrocentric hairdo. The offensive race humour in Warner cartoons starring Bosko and Honey quickly faded over the first year in favor of traditional sight gags in the style of Felix the Cat. If one had seen cartoons like Bosko the Doughboy (1931) and Ride Him, Bosko! (1932) without knowledge of the racialized dialect in the first Looney Tunes short, it would be easy for Bosko and Honey to blend in into their surrounding world of anthropomorphic cows and dogs and simply be taken for a couple of anthropomorphic whatsits themselves.
After a budgetary disagreement with Schlesinger in 1933, Ising and Harman left Warner and moved over to MGM. Harman’s patient allowed them to take the Bosko character with them, however when Bosko retooled for an MGM series called ‘Happy Harmonies’ his cartoons became unrecognizable in style and tone. What had once been a cheerful character analogous with Felix, Oswald or Mickey had been retooled into an unequivocally offensive caricature of an African-Americans which is only remember for its flagrant racism – if at all. While at MGM Harman also directed an exceptionally grim cartoon with an anti-war message entitled Peace on Earth (1939) which was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1990, Steven Spielberg executive produced the Emmy award-winning television series Tiny Toon Adventures for Warner Brothers Animation which was designed by Tom Ruegger to be Looney Tunes for a new generation – but not without paying homage to the first generation. In an episode called “Fields of Honey,” the younger toons rediscover the comedies of Bosko and visit an elderly and apparently bedridden Honey whose health is restored by their laughter. Slightly redesigned as a pair of cartoon canines, the show’s creative team returned Bosko and Honey to a place of honor in the Warner Brothers pantheon after a 50-year exile in cartoon limbo. The “Fields of Honey” episode is nothing short of an affectionate love letter to the earliest days of animation full of reverence for the monochromatic era of Looney Tunes comedy. This in-house nostalgia was also a main ingredient of Warner Animation’s next incarnation of toondom, Animaniacs, which featured a trio of anthropomorphic whatsits similar in design to Bosko and Honey.
After these series had come and gone, Warner Brothers released their popular Looney Tunes Golden Collection on DVD and the final volume of the series included six Bosko cartoons – and on the cover Bosko can be seen proudly standing next to his comedy descendant, Bugs Bunny. If Bugs, Daffy or any Looney Tunes since were taken in for comprehensive DNA analysis at the Acme Medical Products Division, the test results would undoubtedly come back slathered in Bosko and Honey.