::: John M. Golden
t has been said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Indeed, humankind’s endeavors to document the past for the sake of educating future generations are one of the species distinguishing features. Examples are myriad, ranging from primitive cave paintings, hieroglyphics, epic poems, monuments, on through our more modern documentaries and national holidays. Enter into this list Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and written by Jeffrey Price and William S. Seamen, the popular children’s movie combines live action with animation in order to tell the story of a ’toon wrongfully accused of murdering a human. Beneath the film’s “loony” plot and glossy, Technicolor veneer exists a cleverly wrought allegory on the Holocaust that will help to perpetuate the important lessons of that terrible atrocity for audiences old and new.
The filmmakers immediately draw a connection between the unfortunate circumstances of Roger Rabbit and the events of the Holocaust by placing the action of the movie in the 1940s. While the viewer is denied a concrete declaration regarding the year of the setting, the style of dress, the automobiles, and the music of the film are all from that decade. Notable as well are the post-Prohibition bar (which serves as the backdrop for one of the film’s most memorable scenes), and the expressions that color the characters’ speech. In one typical exchange, Roger asks a familiar taxi cab, “Benny, is that you?” to which the disgruntled Benny sarcastically replies, “No, it’s Eleanor Roosevelt.”
The setting of the movie becomes even more conspicuous when one considers that there is nothing that happens during the movie that could only happen in the 1940s. If the plot is not bound to that time period, why would the filmmakers choose not to set their movie in the present day? The decision to place the film in an era rather alien to its adolescent target audience is not coincidental. The filmmakers shed considerable light on their purpose when, during a scene in a movie theater, they place an American World War II propaganda reel on the screen.
Once the film’s context is established, it is easy to make the connection between the characters and their allegorical counterparts. Perhaps most obvious is Judge Doom. A ’toon who conceals his true identity while plotting the systematic annihilation of all other ’toons, Doom is a dark and ominous analogue for German Führer and author of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler. The similarities are striking. In an attempt to create a new society, complete with “more perfect” citizens, Hitler endeavored to eradicate the Jews. Similarly, Doom wishes to create a freeway, complete with motels, fast food restaurants, and gas stations—which, taken together, form a complete symbolic civilization. In order to do so, he must first rid the world of Toontown and its denizens. Where Hitler helped fund his war effort by plundering the wealth of European Jews, Doom “robbed the Acme Bank House” in Toontown in order to finance his scheme. Hitler operates under the auspices of the Nazi party, and Doom is headquartered in the Cloverleaf Corporation, an entity whose logo bears a remarkable similarity to the swastika. Finally, even actor Christopher Lloyd’s guttural pronunciations and foreboding countenance suggest the German despot.
Of course, Hitler wasn’t acting alone in his attempts to exterminate the Jews; he had a formidable ally in Fascist Italy. The filmmakers take special care in implicating the Italians in Roger Rabbit. Judge Doom depends on his henchmen, a band of weasels. What is conspicuous is that the weasels are characterized by a number of gangster-film Italian stereotypes. From their Bowery-boy accents and use of slang (“eeeeh, where’s da rabbit, Eddie?”) to their preference for tommy guns (the weapon of choice for Prohibition-era mobsters), the weasels clearly exhibit stereotypically Italian characteristics. Just as important as the weasels’ ethnic designation is the structure of their organization. Specifically, despite the fact that they are police officers, they adhere to none of the protocol typically associated with that profession. Utterly absent are the complex system of rank (chief, sergeant, lieutenant, etc.) and the custom of working in pairs. Rather, the weasel police squad operates under a fascist dictatorship. The head weasel (in a role mirroring Mussolini’s) rules with an iron fist, while his subordinates (who lack any semblance of rank or order) are subject to his every command, however ridiculous (“STOP LAUGHING!”).
The hero of the film is Eddie Valiant, and much like the United States (quite the heroes of World War II), he is a reluctant one. Both Eddie and the United States are depressed before their calls to action. America is caught in the grips of the Great Depression, while Eddie is also in considerable financial trouble. Katherine reminds the audience that Eddie “still owes (her) fifty dollars,” and Eddie sheepishly admits that times “have been tough.” Of course, Eddie is also depressed in the literal sense, as a result of his brother’s murder. It might be worth mentioning here that one could read Eddie Valiant’s dislike of ’toons as an indictment of anti-Semitism in America. This becomes sticky, however, because Eddie ostensibly has some right to be angry with at least one ’toon. Regardless, his emotional crisis reflects the malaise of Depression-era America.
Just as their circumstances are similar, Eddie and the U.S.A.’s reasons for involvement are similar as well. Most notable among the reasons behind America’s participation in WWII were the promise of economic relief (the mobilization of troops was a sure-fire economic boon), and the perceived threat to American shores (a threat that was realized with the bombing of Pearl Harbor). Eddie, meanwhile, cannot be bothered with the plight of the ’toons until studio boss Maroon offers him the big bucks. Eddie becomes much more passionately engaged in Roger’s struggle for freedom after his is discovered hiding with Roger in the bar. The weasels ask the judge “what should we do with wallflower (Valiant),” and the Judge ominously replies “we’ll see to him later.” A chase ensues, and Eddie finds that his involvement has become a matter of survival.
Rounding out the filmmakers’ allegory are the ’toons themselves. The innocent victims of Judge Doom’s nefarious plot, the ’toons live in Toon Town, a partitioned section of the city which is reminiscent of the Jewish Ghettos in pre-war Germany. It is important to note that Zemeckis uses a number of Jewish stereotypes in the creation of certain characters—recall Roger’s peculiar manner of speech, and the money-lust of Jessical Rabbit (“get me some money too,” she sings on stage). To focus only on these stereotypes, however, is to miss the point. The most distinguishing feature of the ’toons is their incredible diversity. In the film we see all manner of animals and humans, brightly colored ’toons and black and white ’toons (Betty Boop in a heartwarming cameo), jolly ’toons (Dumbo) and surly ones (Baby Herman, Benny the Cab), too. In fact, Spielberg and Zemeckis go so far to emphasize this point as to bring together in one film cartoons from both the Disney and Warner Bros. Studios—no small feat!
The ’toons are as diverse ethically as they are physically. On the one hand we have Roger, who couldn’t hurt anyone because his “entire purpose in life was to make people laugh.” On the other, we have Judge Doom, whose extravagant thirst for power drives him to grand theft, and finally, murder. In between we have everything from the foul-mouthed Baby Heman to the hot-tempered Yosemite Sam to the egomaniacal Donald and Daffy Duck. Hardly saints, the ’toons are portrayed, ironically, as utterly human, and therefore supremely capable of arousing sympathy in the film’s human audience.
The filmmakers’ primary goals in creating Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was certainly to entertain. For all of the film’s laughs, however, they were not aiming for mere slapstick (despite the film’s masterful use of slapstick in the opening sequence). Indeed, the filmmakers used comedy as a vehicle for a poignant reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust—a reminder that hopefully will help prevent a similar atrocity from ever occurring again. This endeavor became increasingly important to Spielberg (himself a Jew), who in subsequent years went on the create both Schindler’s List and a series of live-to-film testimonials from Holocaust survivors.