Christopher P. Lehman
June 18, 2016 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

A Letter From Martha Sigall

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Since the Fourth of July is upon us in a few weeks, I thought I would present correspondence about the patriotic film Leon Schlesinger Presents Bugs Bunny, a.k.a. Any Bonds Today (1941).

I am posting a letter dated February 13, 1998, from the late, great, beloved Martha Sigall. I had written to her about her work on Any Bonds Today and asked about her thoughts about Bugs Bunny’s blackface scene in it, whether she thinks the studio associated blackface with patriotism to an extent, and whether the blackface scene was important for the film. I may have asked about whether she had ever heard any negative feedback about the film at the time, but I don’t remember.

The blackface scene and Sigall’s thoughts on it are also discussed in my book The Colored Cartoon, but I quoted from only part of the letter in the book. She was very helpful to my research, and I was very saddened by her passing many years later. Below is her letter in its entirety. To quote Mandrake in Weasel While You Work, “The Fourth of July came a little early this year!”

“Dear Christopher,
I received your letter this morning and I am happy to answer your questions the best I can.

I do remember painting on Any Bonds Today which played in movie theaters during World War II. However, when I or others paint on the cartoons, we were not concerned about the content of that cartoon. We were given 20 or 30 cels at a time, and we followed directions on what colors to use. We did see the whole thing when it was finished, and I thought it was well done and made its point of selling war bonds. Jolson himself had nothing to do with the making of the film.

As to your second question about using a black faced Bugs Bunny, I do not think there was anything uniquely “patriotic” or “American” about black face. At the studio, caricatures of movie stars were used often, and I remember Jolson being used on more than one occasion, especially since Jolson was a Warner Bros. star and singing “Mammy” in black face was his “schtick.” I remember that he entertained our troops during the war, and he toured the country with other movie people selling war bonds.

Question #3: No, I don’t think that Any Bonds Today needed the black face segment. But I also don’t feel that it hindered it, either. Bugs Bunny in black face sings “Sammy,” referring to Uncle Sam. The entire bit was only one minute and 30 seconds. And the black face part was only about 10 seconds, not that the brevity of it makes it any more acceptable. I sincerely hope that black people were not offended. I don’t believe there was any intention to offend. By today’s standards, it could be considered offensive, but times were different then.

I commend you for taking on this issue in your dissertation. And I wish you much success. If you have any further questions on any Warner Bros. cartoons, I will try to help you if I can. If you get a chance, would you please let me know who it was who referred you to me. Not that I have any objection, I’m just curious.

Sincerely,

MARTHA SIGALL”

Martha Sigall 1917-2014

Martha Sigall 1917-2014

NOTE: For more about the film Any Bonds Today, visit Don Yowp’s Tralfaz blog.

10 Comments

  • I’d always considered that bit more of a nod to Al Jolson. It is a piece of film I was introduced to at various local cartoon festivals in Manhattan. I don’t at all recall it being shown on TV.

    • It ran on KOFY-TV 20 in San Francisco around 1987 as a part of their tribute to Mel Blanc that I co-produced.
      Our producer was a black woman and she had no problems running it UNCUT as she too felt it was a Jolson reference.

  • It’s always been obvious (at least to me) that Bugs Bunny was specifically imitating Al Jolson. Mel Blanc would later make a Capitol record of “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye” that was a take-off on Jolson, accompanied by Billy May doing a spoof of Spike Jones!

    Incidentally, I had always misidentified the blackface caricature in Walter Lantz’s “Toyland Premiere” as Jolson, until friend Dave Kirwan, who is a superfan of Eddie Cantor, ID’d him as Cantor. Eddie Cantor probably spent at least as much screen time in blackface as Jolson!

    • I think neither are as dated as now. Eddie Cantor in blackface? The 1930s cartoons never showed him that way as far as I know.

    • When Al Jolson guested on Jack Benny’s radio show, he complained to Jack about Mel’s imitation of him. Of course, Mel showed up to needle Al even more…

  • I think getting hung up on qualifying blackface as a parody of a specific white person doing an act completely misses the point. Good blackface can be fine entertainment without being a parody of a particular old film star. Case in point: Al Jolson is entertaining enough and he’s doing a generic black character, not a parody of some other white guy in blackface. Just like Kabuki can be seen as parody where men dress up like women who happen to have had their feet bound to the point of mutilation, Blackface is a parody of a race of people some ancestors of whom in parts of the globe were once slaves. In contrast, wearing a Groucho Marx nose & glasses is a parody of a specific person who had prominent physical characteristics of a race that historically endured slavery much longer than any group of people Jolsen ever parodied. 

    I predict a steady backlash, alternately out of spite and out of artistic exploration, against the PC movement that stifles creativity and expression, and the form it will take is a growing acceptance in popular culture of taboo artforms like Blackface. Regardless of the actual state of race relations after 7.5 years of a half-black president (parody of whom you will recall was originally deemed impossible) who many ridiculously believed would be some great unifying force, interest in Blackface will continue to grow as an outlet for cultural and political expression as well, and I for one welcome it.

    • I’m a nearly 50-year-old Black animation head (i.e., fan) and DIY cartoonist, and I respectfully ask:
      WHAT….THE….DROKK?

    • He’s stating the same he usually does, Doz. Not that that makes his remark less reprehensible than it is.

    • There’s a lot of vintage stuff I love that I know various friends are not likely to enjoy, because their histories and their personal experiences force them to see it with different eyes. So I don’t demand they share or approve my enjoyment; just as they don’t demand I laugh at fat jokes. In life and in art, you have to know and respect your audience.

      Those who wax nostalgic about the days before “political correctness” simply assume they are entitled to figuratively pass gas at the table without censure or consequence. In fact, if anybody scoots a chair a few inches away, the gaseous one takes great offense and demands others share his outrage.

      What such persons call “political correctness” exists not because a few are overly sensitive, but because everybody at the table finally got fed up with self-righteous flatulence — which, for all the posturing of its practitioners, is still flatulence. Rendered even less pleasant by the stench of fake moral claims and intellectual fraud.

      Imagine a table where like-minded souls pontificate that all tables must be forced to grant them the privilege and respect they consider their due. They’d quickly despise each other, as every one of them would be socially odoriferous to the discomfort of the others, which is not how they want it to work.

  • For me, the hand mannerisms Bugs uses clearly points to an intent to reference Al Jolson; compare the somewhat similar gestures used in the later Freleng cartoon “Curtain Razor,” where an avian Jolson sings with a Bing Crosby parrot and a Frank Sinatra stork.

    Cantor was well-known for working in blackface; see, for example, his turn doing “There’s Nothing Too Good For My Baby” in “Palmy Days.” He also does a blackface gag in his 1929 book “Caught Short,” in which he does the old (and painful) gag of “I’m the Coon of Kuhn, Loeb” [the well known brokerage house of the era].

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