Bosko is an animated cartoon character created by animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. Bosko was the first recurring character in Leon Schlesinger's cartoon series, and was the star of 39 Looney Tunes shorts released by Warner Bros. He was voiced by Carman Maxwell, Johnny Murray, and Ruby Dandridge during the 1920s and 1930s, and once by Don Messick during the 1990s.
Development and Biography
Creation and first film
In 1927, Harman and Ising were still working for the Walt Disney Studios on a series of live-action/animated short subjects known as the Alice Comedies. Hugh Harman created Bosko in 1927 to capitalize on the new "talkie" craze that was sweeping the motion picture industry. Harman began thinking about making a sound cartoon with Bosko in 1927, before he even left Walt Disney. Hugh Harman made drawings of the new character and registered it with the copyright office on January 3, 1928. The character was registered as a "Negro boy" under the name of Bosko.
After leaving Walt Disney in the spring of 1928, Harman and Ising went to work for Charles Mintz on Universal's second-season Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. April 1929 found them moving on again, leaving Universal to market their new cartoon character. In May 1929, they produced a short pilot cartoon, similar to Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell cartoons, Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid that showcased their ability to animate soundtrack-synchronized speech and dancing. The short, plotless cartoon opens with live action footage of Ising at a drafting table. After he draws Bosko on the page, the character springs to life, talks, sings, and dances. Ising returns Bosko to the inkwell, and the short ends. This short is a landmark in animation history as being the first cartoon to predominantly feature synchronized speech, though Fleischer Studios' Song Car-Tune "My Old Kentucky Home" was the first cartoon to contain animated dialogue a few years earlier. This cartoon set Harman and Ising "apart from early Disney sound cartoons because it emphasized not music but dialogue." The short was marketed to various people by Harman and Ising until Leon Schlesinger offered them a contract to produce a series of cartoons for the Warner Bros. It would not be seen by a wide audience until 71 years later, in 2000, as part of Cartoon Network's special Toonheads: The Lost Cartoons, a compilation special of rare material from the WB/Turner archives.
In his book, Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin states that this early version of Bosko
- “"was in fact a cartoonized version of a young black boy... he spoke in a Southern Negro dialect... in subsequent films this characterization was eschewed, or perhaps forgotten. This could be called sloppiness on the part of Harman and Ising, but it also indicates the uncertain nature of the character itself."”
Bosko and Looney Tunes
Schlesinger saw the Harman-Ising test film and signed the animators to produce cartoons at their studio for him to sell to Warner Bros. Bosko became the star vehicle for the studio's new Looney Tunes cartoon series. Bosko wore long pants and a derby hat, and he had a girlfriend named Honey and a dog named Bruno. He was also sometimes accompanied by an orphan cat named Wilbur and an often antagonistic goat, particularly in early cartoons.
The role of Bosko was to serve as a cartoony version of Al Jolson in the The Jazz Singer (1927). According to Ising, he was initially supposed to be an "inkspot sort of thing". He was not conceived as either a human or an animal, though behaving like a little boy. According to Leonard Maltin, Bosko was a cartoonized version of a young black boy who spoke a Southern dialect of African American Vernacular English. He cites as an example a phrase from Bosko's Holiday, said with an intermittent drawl: "I sho'done likes picnics."
Whether admiring a dress worn by Honey or eating a sandwich (with exaggerated chewing) Bosko had a stock exclamatory reaction indicating his pleasure "Mmmm! Dat sho' is fine!" which became something of a catch phrase.
Although Harman and Ising based Bosko's looks on Felix the Cat, Bosko got his personality from the blackface characters of the minstrel and vaudeville shows popular in the 1930s. In keeping with the stereotypes of the minstrel shows, Bosko is a natural at singing, dancing, and playing any instrument he encounters. In fact, Bosko has the ability to play virtually anything as an instrument, be it a wooden bridge-turned-xylophone or a Dachshund-turned-accordion. In early cartoons, Bosko (voiced by Carman Maxwell) even speaks in an exaggerated version of black speech (However, this was only in the first cartoon. All later cartoons would give him a falsetto voice). Despite the parallels between Bosko and the blackface performers, Ising in later years would deny that the character was ever supposed to be a black caricature, and rather claim he was supposed to be "an inkspot kind of thing."
According to Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser, Bosko and Honey "were the most balanced portrayals of blacks in cartoons to that point". They had the same type of formulaic coy adventures as Mickey and Minnie Mouse. They point to Bosko in Person (1933) where Honey gives a Billie Holiday-style performance as an example of nonracist racial tribute to a real person. According to Tom Bertino, Harman and Ising never called attention to Bosko's racial status, and stayed clear of negative stereotypes involving dice and watermelon. Bosko instead received positive portrayals as a spunky and resourceful boy. An exception to this was a demeaning representation in Congo Jazz (1930). Bosko in a jungle setting is depicted standing between a chimpanzee and a gorilla. All three are depicted with virtually identical faces. The only things identifying him as human is his relative size and his clothes.
From his first Looney Tunes outing, Sinkin' in the Bathtub, Bosko would star in 39 musical films (one of which was not released). His cartoons are notable for their generally weak plots and their abundance of music, singing, and dancing (though there were exceptions, such as Bosko the Doughboy, in 1931). These were the early days of sound cartoons, and audiences were enthralled simply to see characters talking and moving in step with the music. In terms of animation, the shorts are on-par with Disney's shorts of the same period. Harman and Ising were allowed production costs of up to $6000 per cartoon. During the same period, Disney was spending around $10,000 per cartoon. The smaller budgets forced Harman and Ising to recycle footage much more often than Disney did. In terms of music and sound recording, however, Harman and Ising had one up on Disney as the Warner Bros. provided access to a large musical library with all the popular tunes of the day, lavish orchestras (e.g. Abe Lyman) and sound recording equipment and staff free of charge whereas Disney had to pay for all this himself. Disney also had another handicap: he had no access to a music library and was forced to rely, for the most part, on public domain music. In addition, Harman and Ising did not have to worry over details concerning the distribution of their cartoons as the Warner Bros. handled all this.
Vaudeville was the major entertainment of the time, and the cartoons of the era are better understood when compared to it rather than to animation of later decades. Though they might seem boring and rudimentary by today's standards, Bosko's films were quite popular in their day and he rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity in the early 1930s, although the Disney cartoons would eventually surge ahead in popularity on the basis of stronger plot and character development.
In the later Looney Tunes shorts which Bosko appeared, his accent was gone. Consequently, his race became more ambiguous.
Bosko at MGM
In 1933, Harman and Ising broke with Warner Bros. over budget disputes with Schlesinger. Having learned from Walt Disney's experiences with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, they had carefully kept all rights to the Bosko character, and they took him with them. The two found work with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where they launched the Happy Harmonies cartoon series. At first, Bosko appeared in his original design and some of the old animation from the Looney Tunes series was even reused in those Happy Harmonies that features Bosko. After only two cartoons, the character was redesigned into an identifiable black boy with an overactive imagination. This redesigned Bosko, whom many consider to be a different character altogether, in spite of having the same name, only starred in seven cartoons. The character's shorts received negative reception, possibly due to the use of black stereotypes in the cartoons. Eventually, Harman and Ising would discontinue the character.
For the bulk of his cartoons at MGM, Bosko was voiced by the animator who initially voiced him, Carman Maxwell. Ruby Dandridge took on the role for the final three shorts he appeared in, giving him a voice that sounded like modern African-American children.
Originally, the shorts which Bosko appeared usually revolved around musical adventure stories, but for the final three shorts in which he appeared, the plot revolved around the character delivering cookies for his mother, but his imagination would usually lead him to being ambushed by giant frogs who want to steal the cookies.
The career of the character ended for good when MGM fired Harman and Ising due to cost overruns in the films they produced. They were replaced by Fred Quimby.
Bosko in Television
Bosko cartoons were packaged with other Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, to be broadcast in various television markets in the 1950s. For instance, "Skipper Frank" (Frank Herman), showed Bosko, along with Daffy Duck, Egghead and Porky Pig, on "Cartoon Carousel" his hour-long afterschool cartoon program on KTLA-TV (Channel 5) in Los Angeles. Bosko cartoons were also later aired on Nickelodeon as part of the network's Looney Tunes program beginning in 1988 and ending in 1992, when the network pulled all black and white shorts out of rotation to make room for more recent color cartoons featuring more popular Warner characters.
Bosko appeared in a 1990 episode of the television series Tiny Toon Adventures titled "Fields of Honey". In a parody of the then-current film Field of Dreams, a mysterious voice leads Babs Bunny to build a theater that shows nothing but cartoons of Bosko's girlfriend Honey, after being told about Honey (voiced by B.J. Ward) by the Acme Looniversity's mysterious vaultkeeper (voiced by Don Messick). Babs does so, and the resulting audience laughter rejuvenates the aged and ailing Honey. The laughter also rejuvenates the vaultkeeper, who is revealed to be none other than Bosko himself as well as the source of the voice. The cartoon depicts Bosko and Honey as dog-like funny animals similar to the lead characters of the later television series, Animaniacs, presumably so as not to offend viewers with the original black-face characterizations.
The character is also seen in a portrait in the 1996 movie Space Jam, this time in his original form. He also appears in his original form in the Animaniacs cartoon, "The Girl with the Googily Goop", in which he is seen parking his car. He was also seen in a Futurama opening in Sinkin' in the Bathtub at the part where he runs off a cliff from the car with Honey in it.
The majority of the cartoons are available on VHS and DVD in the Uncensored Bosko series from Bosko Video. In 2003, Warner Home Video officially released the initial pilot film Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid, as an extra on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 1 DVD box set. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3 (released in 2005) also includes the first Looney Tunes short, Sinkin' in the Bathtub (which originally introduced Bosko and Honey to audiences in 1930) as an extra. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 6 (released in 2008) includes several Bosko films on a disc officially devoted to Bosko and other early 1930s characters.
All the Bosko cartoons subject to copyright remain owned by Warner Bros., as are the original film elements of those cartoons that have fallen into the public domain. The WB cartoons are under direct ownership of the studio itself, while WB also handles distribution for the MGM cartoons, owned by corporate sibling Turner Entertainment. Time Warner has also acquired rights to the character himself, allowing his appearances in the 1990s to happen.
Cameos in A New Legacy