Bosko, star of early Looney Tunes, underwent a mysterious transformation. Here’s Bosko in his best-known form —
I take him to be a little monkey, don’t you? Everybody else is an animal, and he has those cute ears. Surely he’s a chimp or monkey. Of course, there’s also the obvious fact that he’s a thinly disguised rip-off of Mickey Mouse, shorn of the nose-dot and vast, black spherical ears (people assume they’re discs, but they never vary their appearance whatever way MM faces). He even has a Pluto-like dog, Bruno, and a girlfriend who looks just like Bosko in drag, called Honey.
And there’s also the suspicion that he’s a minstrel-like caricature of an African-American. In fact, from 1929, here’s Bosko’s first talkie —
Different voice, and very obviously an Amos ‘n’ Andy style ethnic caricature. But that side of the character recedes as he adopts the eunuchoid falsetto of Disney’s famous mouse. Cartoonist Rudolf Ising denied that Bosko was of any ethnic type, characterizing him as “an inkspot type thing,” but the view of Hugh Harman, who actually dreamed Bosko up, is apparently not recorded.
Then Bosko is acquired by MGM, when Harman & Ising (Harman-Ising well together!) switched studios, and he goes into Technicolor, becoming a little more sugary in the process.
The bratty kid dresses in Mickey Mouse’s red shorts, and the animation is a bit more three-dimensional, the comedy more domestic and less surreal/grotesque. The MGM effect creeping in.
Then this happens —
Bosko has become fully human, or almost, and he’s certainly African-American now. Curiously, the caricature isn’t particularly offensive (to me, anyway, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for everybody). I wonder how audiences reacted to his transformation? At any rate, the character was quickly retired. The more realistic Bosko became, the less fun his adventures seemed. The final phase, though technically the most elegant, is the least pleasurable to watch.
Bosko’s strange evolutionary leap from inkspot/minstrel/monkey to “real boy” is paralleled over at the Fleischer studio by Betty Boop’s transition from poodle to flapper, which is arguably as insulting in its implications. Very oddly, even after her floppy ears had turned into earrings, and her muzzle modified into the low, chinless mouth we know and lust for, Betty continued to go out with Bimbo, a dog. The implications of which are best left unexplored.