I set my historical romance characters in the midst of some trying times: revolution, colonial conquest, insurrection, epidemic, and more. As author extraordinaire Beverly Jenkins said at #RT17: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.”
For example, even in the middle of World War II, they still had cartoons. And they were not escapist entertainment, either. They dealt with world events head-on. I recently saw two of these cartoons at random while watching the Looney Toon Network, as one does.
“Tortoise wins by a hare” (1943):
You can guess the premise:
This front page of the Chicago Sunday Tribunk is a spoof of the actual Tribune from November 1, 1942 (see below), with all the same stories except the headline . . . and one other. Can you guess which one that Looney Tunes added? Look closely. Do you see “Adolph Hitler Commits Suicide?” in the bottom right? This is one and a half years before Hitler and Eva Braun really killed themselves (and their dog), with cyanide pills in a bunker below Berlin.
Yes, the Allies wanted Hitler dead one way or another, as did some of his own generals, but I do not think suicide was what they expected. When the Tribune really did report this news for real, they had to source it to the Soviets because they did not believe it. But Looney Tunes hit it on the nose.
Okay, on to the funny bits. Bugs Bunny really wanted to beat the tortoise in the cartoon, and he claimed to have a secret weapon. What is it? Take a look.
This is the whole joke: a frame showing Bugs with mileage ration cards, A and C. The C card is the score, but everyone would have known that at the time. Would you like me to explain it? Okay, remember that in the 1940s all essential goods were rationed. Check out this list from the Ames (IA) Historical Society:
The general public was issued a ration sticker marked “A,” and this limited the amount of gasoline you could buy. But, if like Bugs, you got a C emblem, or supplemental mileage ration, you could get more gas. The C designation was reserved for specific professionals: Red Cross officials, school officials, mail and newspaper deliverers, journalists, surgeons, nurses, veterinarians, embalmers (!), ministers and rabbis, farm workers, industrial workers, soldiers, scrap collectors and more. Check out the illustrations below from the Ames Historical Society or Cartype, and go to their sites to see all the stickers available. To get a C supplemental ration was a big deal, and everyone who saw this cartoon knew it. The joke was quick, funny, and entirely of the moment.
“The Blue Danube” from “A Corny Concerto” (1943):
This cartoon was a parody of Disney’s “Ugly Duckling: A Silly Symphony.” What looks like a baby Daffy Duck tries to swim with a swan family, but the mother keeps rejecting him. And Mama Swan is not the only one. A hungry vulture tries to snatch up all the swanlings, and he grabs baby Daffy by mistake. But then he promptly puts Daffy back, with a plunger marked “Rejected 4F.”
What the heck is 4F, you ask? Some of you will know, especially children of the 1960s, that it is a draft classification. 1A meant “Available for unrestricted military service,” or, in other words, don’t make plans. You’re going to be drafted. Look down the list—far, far, down the list for 4F.
4F is: “Registrant not acceptable for military service due to physical, mental, or moral defect.” Being labeled 4F was a stigma for most men at the time—well, for everyone except Frank Sinatra, the “most hated man in World War II,” who got to croon to wives and girlfriends Stateside while other men were off at war. From the New York Times:
Sinatra repeatedly said on draft forms that he had ”no physical or mental defects or diseases,” as he wrote on one. But when he arrived at the Jersey City induction office in December 1943, he gave Army doctors plenty of reasons to reject him. He told them that an ear injury at birth and subsequent operations were still causing ”running ear” and ”head noises.” Furthermore, he claimed to be ”neurotic, afraid to be in crowds, afraid to go in elevator, [wants] to run when surrounded by people” and had ”been very nervous for four or five years.” He also complained that he ”wakens tired in the a.m., is run down and undernourished.”
Sinatra afraid of crowds? Hmm…
Sinatra seems a lot happier about the 4F than Daffy did.
These two cartoons are not the only wartime Looney Tunes, just the least overly racist ones. (Though the 4F joke was pretty ableist.) What I like about them is how they illustrate both the concerns of the time and that people were still able to find the funny. If you can find the funny, you can find the love, too.